Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2020 July 31 - Mars 2020 from 5,000 Feet
Explanation: On Thursday this snapshot from a small plane 5,000 feet above Florida's Space Coast caught a rocket's trail rising into the blue morning sky. It was July's third launch of a mission from planet Earth bound for Mars. The Atlas V rocket left Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Space Launch Complex 41 at 7:50am EDT carrying NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. The car-sized Perseverance is headed for a landing at Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February 2021. On board the sophisticated rover is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
APOD: 2020 July 25 - Tianwen 1 Mission to Mars
Explanation: On July 23, this Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket rose into a blue morning sky from China's Hainan Island Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. The rocket carried an orbiter, lander, and rover to ask Heavenly Questions on the ambitious Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. In fact Tianwen-1 was the second of three missions scheduled for a July departure to the Red Planet. The United Arab Emirates launched its Amal (Hope) Mars probe on July 19. NASA's launch of its Mars Perseverance Rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, USA is scheduled for July 30. That is the last planned Mars launch for 2020 though. The minimum-energy launch window for an expedition to Mars is coming to a close in 2020 and will reopen in 2022.
APOD: 2020 March 1 - A Hole in Mars
Explanation: What created this unusual hole in Mars? The hole was discovered by chance in 2011 on images of the dusty slopes of Mars' Pavonis Mons volcano taken by the HiRISE instrument aboard the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently circling Mars. The hole, shown in representative color, appears to be an opening to an underground cavern, partly illuminated on the image right. Analysis of this and follow-up images revealed the opening to be about 35 meters across, while the interior shadow angle indicates that the underlying cavern is roughly 20 meters deep. Why there is a circular crater surrounding this hole remains a topic of speculation, as is the full extent of the underlying cavern. Holes such as this are of particular interest because their interior caves are relatively protected from the harsh surface of Mars, making them relatively good candidates to contain Martian life. These pits are therefore prime targets for possible future spacecraft, robots, and even human interplanetary explorers.
APOD: 2019 November 1 - The Day After Mars
Explanation: October 31, 1938 was the day after Martians encountered planet Earth, and everything was calm. Reports of the invasion were revealed to be part of a Halloween radio drama, the now famous broadcast based on H.G. Wells' scifi novel War of the Worlds. On Mars October 20, 2014 was calm too, the day after its close encounter with Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1). Not a hoax, this comet really did come within 86,700 miles or so of Mars, about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance. Earth's spacecraft and rovers in Mars orbit and on the surface reported no ill effects though, and had a ringside seat as a visitor from the outer solar system passed by. Spanning over 2 degrees against stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, this colorful telescopic snapshot captures our view of Mars on the day after. Bluish star 51 Ophiuchi is at the upper right and the comet is just emerging from the Red Planet's bright glare.
APOD: 2019 April 22 - Mars Methane Mystery Deepens
Explanation: The methane mystery on Mars just got stranger. New results from ESA and Roscosmos' ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, has unexpectedly not detected methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This result follows the 2013 detection of methane by NASA's Curiosity rover, a result seemingly confirmed by ESA's orbiting Mars Express the next day. The issue is so interesting because life is a major producer of methane on Earth, leading to intriguing speculation that some sort of life -- possibly microbial life -- is creating methane beneath the surface of Mars. Non-biological sources of methane are also possible. Pictured is a visualization of the first claimed methane plume over Mars as detected from Earth in 2003. The new non-detection of methane by the ExoMars Orbiter could mean that Mars has some unexpected way of destroying methane, or that only some parts of Mars release methane -- and possibly only at certain times. As the mystery has now deepened, humanity's scrutiny of our neighboring planet's atmosphere will deepen as well.
APOD: 2019 January 21 - InSight Lander Takes Selfie on Mars
Explanation: This is what NASA's Insight lander looks like on Mars. With its solar panels, InSight is about the size of a small bus. Insight successfully landed on Mars in November with a main objective to detect seismic activity. The featured selfie is a compilation of several images taken of different parts of the InSight lander, by the lander's arm, at different times. SEIS, the orange-domed seismometer seen near the image center last month, has now been placed on the Martian surface. With this selfie, Mars InSight continues a long tradition of robotic spacecraft on Mars taking and returning images of themselves, including Viking, Sojourner, Pathfinder, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, and Curiosity. Data taken by Mars Insight is expected to give humanity unprecedented data involving the interior of Mars, a region thought to harbor formation clues not only about Mars, but Earth.
APOD: 2018 December 10 - Sound and Light Captured by Mars InSight
Explanation: Your arm on Mars has unusual powers. For one thing it is nearly 2 meters long, has a scoop and grapple built into its hand, and has a camera built into its forearm. For another, it will soon deploy your ear -- a sensitive seismometer that will listen for distant rumblings -- onto the surface of Mars. Your SEISmomet-ear is the orange box in the foreground, while the gray dome behind it will be its protective cover. Your arm is attached to the InSight robotic lander that touched down on Mars two weeks ago. Somewhat unexpectedly, your ear has already heard something -- slight vibrations caused by the Martian wind flowing over the solar panels. Light from the Sun is being collected by the solar panels, part of one being visible on the far right. Actually, at the present time, you have two arms operating on Mars, but they are separated by about 600 kilometers. That's because your other active arm is connected to the Curiosity rover exploring a distant crater. Taken a week ago, rusty soil and rocks are visible in the featured image beyond Insight, as well as the orange sky of Mars.
APOD: 2018 November 27 - InSight's First Image from Mars
Explanation: Welcome to Mars, NASA Insight. Yesterday NASA's robotic spacecraft InSight made a dramatic landing on Mars after a six-month trek across the inner Solar System. Needing to brake from 20,000 km per hour to zero in about seven minutes, Insight decelerated by as much as 8 g's and heated up to 1500 degrees Celsius as it deployed a heat shield, a parachute, and at the end, rockets. The featured image was the first taken by InSight on Mars, and welcome proof that the spacecraft had shed enough speed to land softly and function on the red planet. During its final descent, InSight's rockets kicked up dust which can be seen stuck to the lens cap of the Instrument Context Camera. Past the spotty dirt, parts of the lander that are visible include cover bolts at the bottom and a lander footpad on the lower right. Small rocks are visible across the rusty red soil, while the arc across the top of the image is the Martian horizon dividing land and sky. Over the next few weeks InSight will deploy several scientific instruments, including a rumble-detecting seismometer. These instruments are expected to give humanity unprecedented data involving the interior of Mars, a region thought to harbor formation clues not only about Mars, but Earth.
APOD: 2018 November 25 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. The origin of the Martian moons is unknown, though, with a leading hypothesis holding that they are captured asteroids. The larger moon, at 25-kilometers across, is Phobos, and is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this false-colored image mosaic taken by the robotic Viking 1 mission in 1978. A recent analysis of the unusual long grooves seen on Phobos indicates that they may result from boulders rolling away from the giant impact that created the crater on the upper left: Stickney Crater. Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. The ultimate result will be for Phobos to break up in orbit and then crash down onto the Martian surface in about 50 million years. Well before that -- tomorrow, in fact, if everything goes according to plan -- NASA's robotic InSight lander will touch down on Mars and begin investigating its internal structure.
APOD: 2018 November 8 - Mars in the Loop
Explanation: This composite of images spaced some 5 to 9 days apart, from late April (bottom right) through November 5 (top left), traces the retrograde motion of ruddy-colored Mars through planet Earth's night sky. To connect the dots and dates in this 2018 Mars retrograde loop, just slide your cursor over the picture (and check out this animation). But Mars didn't actually reverse the direction of its orbit. Instead, the apparent backwards motion with respect to the background stars is a reflection of the motion of the Earth itself. Retrograde motion can be seen each time Earth overtakes and laps planets orbiting farther from the Sun, the Earth moving more rapidly through its own relatively close-in orbit. On July 27, Mars was near its favorable 2018 perihelic opposition, when Mars was closest to the Sun in its orbit while also opposite the Sun in Earth's sky. For that date, the frame used in this composite was taken during the total lunar eclipse.
APOD: 2018 July 31 - Layers of the South Pole of Mars
Explanation: What lies beneath the layered south pole of Mars? A recent measurement with ground-penetrating radar from ESA's Mars Express satellite has detected a bright reflection layer consistent with an underground lake of salty water. The reflection comes from about 1.5 kilometers down and covers an area 20 kilometers across. Liquid water evaporates quickly from the surface of Mars, but a briny confined lake, such as implied by the radar reflection, could last much longer and be a candidate to host life such as microbes. Pictured, an infrared, green, and blue image of the south pole of Mars taken by Mars Express in 2012 shows a complex mixture of layers of dirt, frozen carbon dioxide, and frozen water.
APOD: 2018 July 27 - Mars Opposition
Explanation: Look opposite the Sun in the sky tonight and you'll see Mars at its brightest. Also within days of its closest approach Mars rises at sunset, near its brightest and best for telescopic observers too, except for the dust storm still blanketing the Red Planet. These two Hubble Space Telescope images compare Mars' appearance near its 2016 and 2018 oppositions. In 2016 the martian atmosphere was clear. Captured just days ago, the 2018 image shows almost the same face of Mars. Surface features obscured by dust, the planet's cloud enshrouded south pole is tilted more toward the Sun. Increased heat in the southern hemisphere spring and summer likely triggers planet wide dust storms. Of course, if you look opposite the Sun in the sky tonight, you'll also see a Full Moon near Mars. Skygazers NOT located in North America could see the Red Planet near a Red Moon during a Total Lunar Eclipse.
APOD: 2018 July 18 - Dark Slope Streaks Split on Mars
Explanation: What is creating these dark streaks on Mars? No one is sure. Candidates include dust avalanches, evaporating dry ice sleds, and liquid water flows. What is clear is that the streaks occur through light surface dust and expose a deeper dark layer. Similar streaks have been photographed on Mars for years and are one of the few surface features that change their appearance seasonally. Particularly interesting here is that larger streaks split into smaller streaks further down the slope. The featured image was taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) several months ago. Currently, a global dust storm is encompassing much of Mars.
APOD: 2018 July 9 - Road to Mars
Explanation: What's that light at the end of the road? Mars. This is a good month to point out Mars to your friends and family because our neighboring planet will not only be its brightest in 15 years, it will be visible for much of night. During this month, Mars will be about 180 degrees around from the Sun, and near the closest it ever gets to planet Earth. In terms of orbits, Mars is also nearing the closest point to the Sun in its elliptical orbit, just as Earth moves nearly between it and the Sun -- an alignment known as perihelic opposition. In terms of viewing, orange Mars will rise in the east just as the Sun sets in the west, on the opposite side of the sky. Mars will climb in the sky during the night, reach its highest near midnight, and then set in the west just as the Sun begins to rise in the east. The red planet was captured setting beyond a stretch of road in Arches National Park in mid-May near Moab, Utah, USA.
APOD: 2018 June 1 - Mars Approach
Explanation: Since the distance from Earth to Mars changes drastically as the planets orbit the Sun, Mars' appearance changes dramaticaly. Mars is bright now, and it's getting closer and brighter still as it orbits toward its 2018 opposition and closest approach to Earth in late July. This sequence of sharp telescopic images records the Red Planet's steady increase in apparent size for the months of January (top left) through April. During that time its distance from Earth went from 284 million kilometers in January to 129 million kilometers in April, and so its apparent size more than doubled. At closest approach Mars will be about 58 million kilometers distant, more than doubling in apparent size compared to the disk at the lower right. By then it will rival the brightness of Jupiter in planet Earth's night sky, but don't believe the claims of the inevitable internet hoax.
APOD: 2017 December 19 - The Spiral North Pole of Mars
Explanation: Why is there a spiral around the North Pole of Mars? Each winter this pole develops a new outer layer about one meter thick composed of carbon dioxide frozen out of the thin Martian atmosphere. This fresh layer is deposited on a water-ice layer that exists year round. Strong winds blow down from above the cap's center and swirl due to the spin of the red planet -- contributing to Planum Boreum's spiral structure. The featured image is a perspective mosaic generated earlier this year from numerous images taken by ESA's Mars Express and elevations extracted from the laser altimeter aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor mission. New missions to Mars planned in the next few years include Insight with plans to drill into Mars, and ExoMars and the Mars 2020 Rover with plans to search for signs of microscopic Martian life -- past and present.
APOD: 2017 November 20 - Curiosity Rover Takes Selfie on Mars
Explanation: Yes, but have you ever taken a selfie on Mars? The Curiosity rover on Mars has. This selfie was compiled from many smaller images -- which is why the mechanical arm holding the camera is not visible. (Although its shadow is!) Taken in mid-2015, the featured image shows not only the adventurous rover, but dark layered rocks, the light colored peak of Mount Sharp, and the rusting red sand that pervades Mars. If you look closely, you can even see that a small rock is stuck into one of Curiosity's aging wheels. Now nearing the end of 2017, Curiosity continues to explore the layers of sedimentary rocks it has discovered on Vera Rubin Ridge in order to better understand, generally, the ancient geologic history of Mars and, specifically, why these types of rocks exist there.
APOD: 2017 October 6 - Global Aurora at Mars
Explanation: A strong solar event last month triggered intense global aurora at Mars. Before (left) and during (right) the solar storm, these projections show the sudden increase in ultraviolet emission from martian aurora, more than 25 times brighter than auroral emission previously detected by the orbiting MAVEN spacecraft. With a sunlit crescent toward the right, data from MAVEN's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph is shown in purple hues on the night side of Mars globes simulated to match the observation dates and times. On Mars, solar storms can result in planet-wide aurora because, unlike Earth, the Red Planet isn't protected by a strong global magnetic field that can funnel energetic charged particles toward the poles. For all those on the planet's surface during the solar storm, dangerous radiation levels were double any previously measured by the Curiosity rover. MAVEN is studying whether Mars lost its atmosphere due to its lack of a global magnetic field.
APOD: 2017 July 19 - Ireson Hill on Mars
Explanation: What created this unusual hill on Mars? Its history has become a topic of research, but its shape and two-tone structure makes it one of the more unusual hills that the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars has rolled near. Dubbed Ireson Hill, the mound rises about 5 meters high and spans about 15 meters across. Ireson Hill is located on the Bagnold Dune field on the slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater on Mars. The featured 41-image panorama has been horizontally compressed to include the entire hill. The image was taken on February 2 and released last week. Because Mars is moving behind the Sun as seen from the Earth, NASA will soon stop sending commands to its Martian orbiters and rovers until about August 1.
APOD: 2017 May 28 - Collapse in Hebes Chasma on Mars
Explanation: What's happened in Hebes Chasma on Mars? Hebes Chasma is a depression just north of the enormous Valles Marineris canyon. Since the depression is unconnected to other surface features, it is unclear where the internal material went. Inside Hebes Chasma is Hebes Mensa, a 5 kilometer high mesa that appears to have undergone an unusual partial collapse -- a collapse that might be providing clues. The featured image, taken by ESA's robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, shows great details of the chasm and the unusual horseshoe shaped indentation in the central mesa. Material from the mesa appears to have flowed onto the floor of the chasm, while a possible dark layer appears to have pooled like ink on a downslope landing. A recent hypothesis holds that salty rock composes some lower layers in Hebes Chasma, with the salt dissolving in melted ice flows that drained through holes into an underground aquifer.
APOD: 2016 August 9 - Mars at Closest Approach
Explanation: When does Mars appear the largest? This occurs when Earth sweeps past Mars in their respective orbits around the Sun, creating a momentary Sun-Earth-Mars alignment called opposition. The featured image shows the Mars opposition that occurred earlier this year, as well as how Mars will look later this year. Mars actually changes its size continuously -- the monthly jumps in size are illustrative. During the first months of the year, Earth's view toward Mars is from relatively far away and from a relatively sideways angle -- making Mars appear small and at less than full phase (gibbous). As months progress, Mars appears increasingly larger and fuller. The day Earth and Mars were closest together was on May 30. By June, Earth had passed Mars, and part of the other side of Mars appeared shadowed. Mars will now appear increasingly smaller during 2016. Even if you watch Mars from Earth all along its orbit, though, Mars will never show a crescent phase.
APOD: 2016 July 20 - Dark Dunes on Mars
Explanation: How does wind affect sand on Mars? To help find out if it differs significantly from Earth, the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars was directed to investigate the dark Namib Dune in the Bagnold Dune Field in Gale Crater. Namib is the first active sand dune investigated up close outside of planet Earth. Wind-created ripples on Earth-bound sand dunes appear similar to ripples on Mars, with one exception. The larger peaks visible on dark Namib dune, averaging about 3 meters apart, are of a type seen only underwater on Earth. They appear to arise on Mars because of the way the thin Martian wind drags dark sand particles. The featured image was taken last December and is horizontally compressed to show context. In the distance, a normal dusty Martian landscape slopes up in light orange, while a rock-strewn landscape is visible on the far right. Curiosity unexpectedly went into safe mode in early July, but it was brought out last week and has now resumed exploring the once lake-filled interior of Gale Crater for further signs that it was once habitable by microbial life.
APOD: 2016 May 2 - Crossing Mars
Explanation: Where is NASA's rover Curiosity going on Mars? Its geographical goals are on the slopes of Mount Sharp, whose peak is seen in the background on the right. A key scientific goal, however, remains to better assess when and where conditions on Mars were once suitable for life, in particular microbial life. To further this goal, Curiosity was directed to cross the rugged terrain of Nautkluft Plateau, visible in the featured image on the foreground left. Curiosity is crossing toward smoother uphill sites with rocks containing hematite and sulfates, sites that could give the rolling rover new clues on how long this part of Mars was wet -- and hence more favorable for life -- before drying out. Of recent concern, however, is Curiosity's aluminum wheels, which are showing increasing signs of wear. Although already fulfilling the goals of its two year study, Curiosity's mission has been extended as it continues to uncover valuable information about the extraordinary past of Mars, the next planet out from the Sun from Earth.
APOD: 2016 February 15 - White Rock Fingers on Mars
Explanation: What caused this unusual light rock formation on Mars? Intrigued by the possibility that they could be salt deposits left over as an ancient lakebed dried-up, detailed studies of these fingers now indicate a more mundane possibility: volcanic ash. Studying the exact color of the formation indicated the possible volcanic origin. The light material appears to have eroded away from surrounding area, indicating a very low-density substance. The stark contrast between the rocks and the surrounding sand is compounded by the unusual darkness of the sand. The featured picture was taken with the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey, the longest serving spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The image spans about 10 kilometers inside a larger crater.
APOD: 2015 November 22 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The larger moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning color image from the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. A recent analysis of the long grooves indicates that they may result from global stretching caused by tides -- the differing force of Mars' gravity on different sides of Phobos. These grooves may then be an early phase in the disintegration of Phobos into a ring of debris around Mars.
APOD: 2015 September 30 - Seasonal Streaks Point to Recent Flowing Water on Mars
Explanation: What creates these changing streaks on Mars? Called Recurring Slope Linea (RSL), these dark features start on the slopes of hills and craters but don't usually extend to the bottom. What's even more unusual is that these streaks appear to change with the season, appearing fresh and growing during warm weather and disappearing during the winter. After much study, including a recent chemical analyses, a leading hypothesis has emerged that these streaks are likely created by new occurrences of liquid salty water that evaporates as it flows. The source for the briny water is still unclear, with two possibilities being condensation from the Martian atmosphere and underground reservoirs. An exciting inference is that if these briny flows are not too salty, they may be able to support microbial life on Mars even today. The featured image of a hill inside Horowitz Crater was investigated by instruments aboard the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that has been returning data from Mars since 2006.
APOD: 2014 December 22 - The Mysterious Methane of Mars
Explanation: What's creating methane on Mars? Recent measurements from the robotic Curiosity rover currently rolling across Mars indicate a surprising 10-fold increase in atmospheric methane between measurements only months apart. Life is a major producer of methane on Earth, and so speculation is rampant that some sort of life -- possibly microbial life -- is creating methane beneath the surface of Mars. Other possibilities do exist, though, with a leading model being the sudden release of methane produced by the mixing of specific soil chemicals with underground water. Proposed origins of Martian methane are depicted in the featured illustration. The origin of Mars' methane is a very active area of research, with missions like Curiosity and India's Mars Orbiter Mission searching for clues by measuring methane abundance changes and possible byproducts of different methane-producing processes.
APOD: 2014 November 1 - The Day After Mars
Explanation: October 31, 1938 was the day after Martians encountered planet Earth, and everything was calm. Reports of the invasion were revealed to be part of a Halloween radio drama, the now famous broadcast based on H.G. Wells' scifi novel War of the Worlds. On Mars October 20, 2014 was calm too, the day after its close encounter with Comet Siding Spring. Not a hoax, this comet really did come within 86,700 miles or so of Mars, about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance. Earth's spacecraft and rovers in Mars orbit and on the surface reported no ill effects though, and had a ringside seat as a visitor from the outer solar system passed by. Spanning over 2 degrees against stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, this colorful telescopic snapshot captures our view of Mars on the day after. Bluish star 51 Ophiuchi is at the upper right and the comet is just emerging from the Red Planet's bright glare.
APOD: 2014 October 28 - Retrograde Mars
Explanation: Why would Mars appear to move backwards? Most of the time, the apparent motion of Mars in Earth's sky is in one direction, slow but steady in front of the far distant stars. About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. During the most recent such pass starting late last year, Mars as usual, loomed large and bright. Also during this time, Mars appeared to move backwards in the sky, a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Featured here is a series of images digitally stacked so that all of the stars coincide. Here, Mars appears to trace out a narrow loop in the sky. At the center of the loop, Earth passed Mars and the retrograde motion was the highest. Retrograde motion can also be seen for other Solar System planets.
APOD: 2014 October 20 - Comet Siding Spring Passes Mars
Explanation: Yesterday, a comet passed very close to Mars. In fact, Comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring) passed closer to the red planet than any comet has ever passed to Earth in recorded history. To take advantage of this unique opportunity to study the close interaction of a comet and a planet, humanity currently has five active spacecraft orbiting Mars: NASA's MAVEN, MRO, Mars Odyssey, as well as ESA's Mars Express, and India's Mars Orbiter. Most of these spacecraft have now sent back information that they have not been damaged by small pieces of the passing comet. These spacecraft, as well as the two active rovers on the Martian surface -- NASA's Opportunity and Curiosity -- have taken data and images that will be downloaded to Earth for weeks to come and likely studied for years to come. The featured image taken yesterday, however, was not taken from Mars but from Earth and shows Comet Siding Spring on the lower left as it passed Mars, on the upper right.
APOD: 2014 September 26 - MAVEN at Mars
Explanation: Launched on November 18, 2013, the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft completed its interplanetary voyage September 21, captured into a wide, elliptical orbit around Mars. MAVEN's imaging ultraviolet spectrograph has already begun its planned exploration of the Red Planet's upper atmosphere, acquiring this image data from an altitude of 36,500 kilometers. In false color, the three ultraviolet wavelength bands show light reflected from atomic hydrogen (in blue), atomic oxygen (in green) and the planet's surface (in red). Low mass atomic hydrogen is seen to extend thousands of kilometers into space, with the cloud of more massive oxygen atoms held closer by Mars' gravity. Both are by products of the breakdown of water and carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere and the MAVEN data can be used to determine the rate of water loss over time. In fact, MAVEN is the first mission dedicated to exploring Mars' tenuous upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the Sun and solar wind. But the most recent addition to the fleet of spacecraft from planet Earth now in martian orbit is MOM.
APOD: 2014 August 12 - Collapse in Hebes Chasma on Mars
Explanation: What's happened in Hebes Chasma on Mars? Hebes Chasma is a depression just north of the enormous Valles Marineris canyon. Since the depression is unconnected to other surface features, it is unclear where the internal material went. Inside Hebes Chasma is Hebes Mensa, a 5 kilometer high mesa that appears to have undergone an unusual partial collapse -- a collapse that might be providing clues. The above image, taken by the robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, shows great details of the chasm and the unusual horseshoe shaped indentation in the central mesa. Material from the mesa appears to have flowed onto the floor of the chasm, while a possible dark layer appears to have pooled like ink on a downslope landing. A recent hypothesis holds that salty rock composes some lower layers in Hebes Chasma, with the salt dissolving in melted ice flows that drained through holes into an underground aquifer.
APOD: 2014 April 11 - Mars near Opposition
Explanation: Tonight Mars is between opposition (April 8) and closest approach (April 14) looping through the constellation Virgo opposite the Sun in the night sky. That makes it prime season for telescopic views of the the Red Planet, like this one from April 3rd. The clear, sharp image was captured with a high-speed digital camera and 16-inch diameter telescope from Assis, Brazil, Planet Earth. Mars' north polar cap is at the top left. Also visible are whitish orographic clouds - water vapor clouds condensing in the cold atmosphere above the peaks of Mars' towering volcanos. The exact dates of closest approach and opposition are slightly different because of the planet's elliptical orbit. Still, get your telescope out on the night of closest approach (April 14/15) and you can view both Mars and a total eclipse of the Moon. Mars will be about 1/100th the angular size of the Moon.
APOD: 2014 April 10 - Mars, Ceres, Vesta
Explanation: That bright, ruddy star you've recently noticed rising just after sunset isn't a star at all. That's Mars, the Red Planet. Mars is now near its 2014 opposition (April 8) and closest approach (April 14), looping through the constellation Virgo opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky. Clearly outshining bluish Spica, alpha star of Virgo, Mars is centered in this labeled skyview from early April, that includes two other solar system worlds approaching their opposition. On the left, small and faint asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres are seen near star Tau Virginis. But you'll just have to imagine NASA's Dawn spacecraft cruising between the small worlds. Having left Vesta in September of 2012, Dawn's ion engine has been steadily driving it to match orbits with Ceres, scheduled to arrive there in February 2015. Of course, you can also look near Mars for the Moon opposite the Sun in Earth's sky on the night of April 14/15 ... and see a total lunar eclipse.
APOD: 2014 March 9 - A Hole in Mars
Explanation: What created this unusual hole in Mars? The hole was discovered by chance in 2011 on images of the dusty slopes of Mars' Pavonis Mons volcano taken by the HiRISE instrument aboard the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently circling Mars. The hole appears to be an opening to an underground cavern, partly illuminated on the image right. Analysis of this and follow-up images revealed the opening to be about 35 meters across, while the interior shadow angle indicates that the underlying cavern is roughly 20 meters deep. Why there is a circular crater surrounding this hole remains a topic of speculation, as is the full extent of the underlying cavern. Holes such as this are of particular interest because their interior caves are relatively protected from the harsh surface of Mars, making them relatively good candidates to contain Martian life. These pits are therefore prime targets for possible future spacecraft, robots, and even human interplanetary explorers.
APOD: 2013 December 8 - Everest Panorama from Mars
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars -- what might you see? Scroll right to find out. The robotic Spirit rover that rolled around Mars from 2004 to 2009 Mars climbed to the top of a hill in 2005 and took a series of images over three days that were then digitally combined into a 360 degree panorama. Spirit was instructed to take images having the same resolution as a human with 20-20 eyesight. The full panoramic result can be found by clicking on the above image and has a level of detail unparalleled in the history of Martian surface photography. The panorama was taken from the pinnacle of Husband Hill and has been dubbed the Everest panorama, in honor of the view from the tallest mountain on Earth. Visible in Gusev Crater are rocks, rusting sand, a Martian sundial, vast plains, nearby peaks, faraway peaks, and sand drifts. In the distance, fast moving dust devils can be seen as slight apparitions of red, green, or blue, the colors of filters used to build up this natural color vista.
APOD: 2013 February 5 - Mars: Shadow at Point Lake
Explanation: What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn't human? Then you might be the robotic Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. Curiosity landed in Gale Crater last August and has been busy looking for signs of ancient running water and clues that Mars could once have harbored life. Pictured above, Curiosity has taken a wide panorama that includes its own shadow in the direction opposite the Sun. The image was taken in November from a location dubbed Point Lake, although no water presently exists there. Curiosity has already discovered several indications of dried streambeds on Mars, and is scheduled to continue its exploration by climbing nearby Mt. Sharp over the next few years.
APOD: 2012 December 27 - Curiosity Rover at Rocknest on Mars
Explanation: What's in this smooth soil on Mars? In late October, NASA's robotic Curiosity rover stopped near a place dubbed Rocknest as it continues to explore Gale Crater on Mars. Rocknest is the group of stones seen near the top left of the above image -- just to the left of Curiosity's mast. Of particular interest was the unusually smooth patch of soil named Wind Drift seen to the left of Curiosity, which was likely created by the Martian wind blowing fine particles into Rocknest's wake. The above image shows part of Mt. Sharp in the background to upper right, and, oddly, almost the entire rover itself, digitally reconstructed from 55 frames while digitally removing an extended arm. Curiosity scooped several sand samples from Wind Drift into its Chemistry and Mineralogy Experiment (CheMin) and the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory for a detailed analysis. Preliminary data from the soil indicates a small amount of one-carbon organic material the origin of which it presently unknown. Although the organic signal might be just contaminants from Earth, the exciting possibility that it could be from Mars itself will remain a focus of future exploration and research.
APOD: 2012 October 28 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The larger moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning color image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so Phobos will likely be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a decaying ring around Mars.
APOD: 2012 August 15 - Curiosity on Mars: A Wall of Gale Crater
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars, what would you see? The above image is a digitally re-colored approximation of what you might see if the above Martian landscape had occurred on Earth. Images from Mars false-colored in this way are called white balanced and useful for planetary scientists to identify rocks and landforms similar to Earth. The image is a high resolution version of a distant wall of Gale Crater captured by the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars last week. A corresponding true color image exists showing how this scene actually appears on Mars. The robotic Curiosity rover continues to check itself over and accept new programming from Earth before it begins to roll across Mars and explore a landscape that has the appearance of being an unusually layered dried river bed.
APOD: 2012 August 9 - Mars in the Loop
Explanation: This composite of images spaced some 5 to 7 days apart from late October 2011 (top right) through early July 2012 (bottom left), traces the retrograde motion of ruddy-colored Mars through planet Earth's night sky. To connect the dots in Mars' retrograde loop, just slide your cursor over the picture (and check out this animation). But Mars didn't actually reverse the direction of its orbit. Instead, the apparent backwards motion with respect to the background stars is a reflection of the motion of the Earth itself. Retrograde motion can be seen each time Earth overtakes and laps planets orbiting farther from the Sun, the Earth moving more rapidly through its own relatively close-in orbit. On March 4th, 2012 Mars was opposite the Sun in Earth's sky, near its closest and brightest at the center of this picture. Just arrived on the surface of the Red Planet, the Curiosity rover was launched on November 26, when Mars was near the crossover point of its retrograde loop. Of course, Mars can now be spotted close to Saturn and bright star Spica, near the western horizon after sunset.
APOD: 2012 August 7 - A Wheel on Mars
Explanation: A wheel attached to NASA's Curiosity rover is firmly on the martian surface in this early picture from the Mars Science Laboratory mission, captured after a successful landing on August 5, 2012 at 10:32pm (PDT). Seen at the lower right of a Hazard Avoidance Camera fisheye wide-angle image, the rover's left rear wheel is 50 centimeters (about 20 inches) in diameter. Part of a spring hinge for the camera's dust cover is just visible in the right corner, while at the upper left is part of the rover's RTG power source. Looking into the Sun across the rock stewn surface of Mars, distant hills on the right are the rim of Gale Crater, about 20 kilometers from the compact car-sized rover's current resting place.
APOD: 2012 July 31 - Curiosity Before Mars: Seven Minutes of Terror
Explanation: Next week at this time, there may be an amazing new robotic explorer on Mars. Or there may be a new pile of junk. It all likely depends on many things going correctly in the minutes after the Mars Science Laboratory mission arrives at Mars and attempts to deploy the Curiosity rover from orbit. Arguably the most sophisticated landing yet attempted on the red planet, consecutive precision events will involve a heat shield, a parachute, several rocket maneuvers, and the automatic operation of an unusual device called a Sky Crane. These "Seven Minutes of Terror" -- depicted in the above dramatic video -- will begin on Monday, August 6 at about 5:24 am Universal time, which occurs on Sunday night, August 5 for western North Americans. If successful, the car-sized Curiosity rover will rest on the surface of Mars, soon to begin exploring Gale Crater to better determine the habitability of this seemingly barren world to life -- past, present, and future. Although multiple media outlets may cover this event, one way to watch these landing events unfold is on the NASA channel live on the web.
APOD: 2012 July 18 - A Hole in Mars
Explanation: What created this unusual hole in Mars? The hole was discovered by chance on images of the dusty slopes of Mars' Pavonis Mons volcano taken by the HiRISE instrument aboard the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently circling Mars. The hole appears to be an opening to an underground cavern, partly illuminated on the image right. Analysis of this and follow-up images revealed the opening to be about 35 meters across, while the interior shadow angle indicates that the underlying cavern is roughly 20 meters deep. Why there is a circular crater surrounding this hole remains a topic of speculation, as is the full extent of the underlying cavern. Holes such as this are of particular interest because their interior caves are relatively protected from the harsh surface of Mars, making them relatively good candidates to contain Martian life. These pits are therefore prime targets for possible future spacecraft, robots, and even human interplanetary explorers.
APOD: 2012 April 22 - Flowing Barchan Sand Dunes on Mars
Explanation: When does Mars act like a liquid? Although liquids freeze and evaporate quickly into the thin atmosphere of Mars, persistent winds may make large sand dunes appear to flow and even drip like a liquid. Visible on the above image right are two flat top mesas in southern Mars when the season was changing from Spring to Summer. A light dome topped hill is also visible on the far left of the image. As winds blow from right to left, flowing sand on and around the hills leaves picturesque streaks. The dark arc-shaped droplets of fine sand are called barchans, and are the interplanetary cousins of similar Earth-based sand forms. Barchans can move intact a downwind and can even appear to pass through each other. When seasons change, winds on Mars can kick up dust and are monitored to see if they escalate into another of Mars' famous planet-scale sand storms.
APOD: 2011 December 12 – An Unusual Vein of Deposited Rock on Mars
Explanation: What could create this unusual vein of rock on Mars? A leading hypothesis is that this thin rock layer dubbed "Homestake" was deposited by a running liquid -- like most mineral veins are here on Earth. And the running liquid of choice is water. Therefore, this mineral streak -- rich in calcium and sulfur -- is the latest in the growing body of evidence that part of Mars had a watery past. This, in turn, increases the speculation that Mars was once hospitable to life. Pictured above is a vista taken near the western rim of Endeavour Crater by the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. The inset image shows a close up of the recently discovered mineral vein.
APOD: 2011 November 30 - Curiosity Rover Lifts Off for Mars
Explanation: Next stop: Mars. This past weekend the Mars Science Laboratory carrying the Curiosity Rover blasted off for the red planet atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA, as pictured above. At five times the size of the Opportunity rover currently operating on Mars, Curiosity is like a strange little car with six small wheels, a head-like camera mast, a rock crusher, a long robotic arm, and a plutonium power source. Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars next August and start a two year mission to explore Gale crater, to help determine whether Mars could ever have supported life, and to help determine how humans might one day visit Earth's planetary neighbor.
APOD: 2011 October 30 - White Rock Fingers on Mars
Explanation: What caused this unusual light rock formation on Mars? Intrigued by the possibility that they could be salt deposits left over as an ancient lakebed dried-up, detailed studies of these fingers now indicate a more mundane possibility: volcanic ash. Studying the exact color of the formation indicated the possible volcanic origin. The light material appears to have eroded away from surrounding area, indicating a very low-density substance. The stark contrast between the rocks and the surrounding sand is compounded by the unusual darkness of the sand. The above picture was taken with the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The image spans about 10 kilometers inside a larger crater.
APOD: 2011 September 26 - Dry Ice Pits on Mars
Explanation: Part of Mars is defrosting. Around the South Pole of Mars, toward the end of every Martian summer, the warm weather causes a section of the vast carbon-dioxide ice cap to evaporate. Pits begin to appear and expand where the carbon dioxide dry ice sublimates directly into gas. These ice sheet pits may appear to be lined with gold, but the precise composition of the dust that highlights the pit walls actually remains unknown. The circular depressions toward the image center measure about 60 meters across. The HiRISE camera aboard the Mars-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the above image in late July. In the next few months, as Mars continues its journey around the Sun, colder seasons will prevail, and the thin air will turn chilly enough not only to stop the defrosting but once again freeze out more layers of solid carbon dioxide.
APOD: 2011 August 15 - Rover Arrives at Endeavour Crater on Mars
Explanation: What can the present-day terrain in and around large Endeavour crater tell us about ancient Mars? Starting three years ago, NASA sent a coffee-table sized robot named Opportunity on a mission rolling across the red planet's Meridiani Planum to find out. Last week, it finally arrived. Expansive Endeavour crater stretches 22 kilometers from rim to rim, making it the largest crater ever visited by a Mars Exploration Rover (MER). It is hypothesized that the impact that created the crater exposed ancient rock that possibly formed under wet conditions, and if so, this rock may yield unique clues to the watery past of Mars. Pictured above, the west rim of Endeavour looms just ahead of the Opportunity rover. Opportunity may well spend the rest of its operational life exploring Endeavour, taking pictures, spinning its wheels, and boring into intriguing rocks.
APOD: 2011 August 8 - Seasonal Dark Streaks on Mars
Explanation: What is causing these dark streaks on Mars? A leading hypothesis is flowing -- but quickly evaporating -- water. The streaks, visible in dark brown near the image center, appear in the Martian spring and summer but fade in the winter months, only to reappear again the next summer. These are not the first markings on Mars that have been interpreted as showing the effects of running water, but they are the first to add the clue of a seasonal dependence. The above picture, taken in May, digitally combines several images from the the HiRISE instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image is color-enhanced and depicts a slope inside Newton crater in a mid-southern region of Mars. The streaks bolster evidence that water exists just below the Martian surface in several locations, and therefore fuels speculation that Mars might harbor some sort of water-dependent life. Future observations with robotic spacecraft orbiting Mars, such as MRO, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey will continue to monitor the situation and possibly confirm -- or refute -- the exciting flowing water hypothesis.
APOD: 2011 July 31 - Metal on the Plains of Mars
Explanation: What has the Opportunity rover found on Mars? While traversing a vast empty plain in 2005 in Meridiani Planum, one of Earth's rolling robots on Mars found a surprise when visiting the location of its own metallic heat shield discarded last year during descent. The surprise is the rock visible on the lower left, found to be made mostly of dense metals iron and nickel. The large cone-shaped object behind it -- and the flank piece on the right -- are parts of Opportunity's jettisoned heat shield. Smaller shield debris is also visible. Scientists do not think that the basketball-sized metal "Heat Shield Rock" originated on Mars, but rather is likely an ancient metallic meteorite. In hindsight, finding a meteorite in a vast empty dust plain on Mars might be considered similar to Earth meteorites found on the vast empty ice plains of Antarctica. The finding raises speculations about the general abundance of rocks on Mars that have fallen there from outer space.
APOD: 2011 May 30 - The Last Panorama of the Spirit Rover on Mars
Explanation: This is the last thing that the Spirit rover on Mars ever saw. Operating years beyond original expectations, Spirit eventually got mired in martian dirt and then ran out of power when investigating the unusual Home Plate surface feature on Mars. Visible in the above panorama are numerous rocks and slopes of the surrounding Columbia Hills of Mars. The strange hill with the light colored top, visible near the top center of the image, has been dubbed von Braun and was a future destination when Spirit got bogged down. A leading hypothesis holds that von Braun is related to martian volcanism. Last week, NASA stopped trying to contact Spirit after numerous attempts. Half a world away, Spirit's sister rover Opportunity continues to roll toward Endeavour Crater, which could become the largest crater yet visited by an earthling-created robot.
APOD: 2011 March 13 - A Mars Panorama from the Phoenix Lander
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars, what would you see? The robotic Phoenix spacecraft that landed on Mars in 2008 recorded the above spectacular panorama. The above image is actually a digital combination of over 100 camera pointings and surveys fully 360 degrees around the busy robotic laboratory. Scrolling right will reveal the rest of the panoramic image. Visible in the image foreground are circular solar panels, various Phoenix instruments, rust colored rocks, a trench dug by Phoenix to probe Mars' chemical composition, a vast plateau of dirt and dirt-covered ice, and, far in the distance, the dust colored atmosphere of Mars. Phoenix landed in the far north of Mars and has used its sophisticated laboratory to search for signs that past life might have been possible. Soil analyses have confirmed the presence of ice and gave unexpected indications of perchlorate salts. Whether Martian life could have evolved around such perchlorates is an ongoing topic of research.
APOD: 2010 December 1 - Martian Moon Phobos from Mars Express
Explanation: Why is Phobos so dark? Phobos, the largest and innermost of two Martian moons, is the darkest moon in the entire Solar System. Its unusual orbit and color indicate that it may be a captured asteroid composed of a mixture of ice and dark rock. The above picture of Phobos near the limb of Mars was captured last month by the robot spacecraft Mars Express currently orbiting Mars. Phobos is a heavily cratered and barren moon, with its largest crater located on the far side. From images like this, Phobos has been determined to be covered by perhaps a meter of loose dust. Phobos orbits so close to Mars that from some places it would appear to rise and set twice a day, but from other places it would not be visible at all. Phobos' orbit around Mars is continually decaying -- it will likely break up with pieces crashing to the Martian surface in about 50 million years.
APOD: 2010 November 22 - A Dark Dune Field in Proctor Crater on Mars
Explanation: Was this image taken with a telescope or a microscope? Perhaps this clue will help: if the dark forms were bacteria, they would each span over football field across. What is actually being seen are large sand dunes on the floor of Proctor Crater on Mars. The above picture was taken by HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a robot spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars. The dark rippled dunes likely formed more recently than the lighter rock forms they appear to cover, and are thought to slowly shift in response to pervasive winds. The dunes arise from a complex relationship between the sandy surface and high winds on Mars. Similar dunes were first seen in Proctor Crater by Mariner 9 more than 35 years ago.
APOD: 2010 August 30 - Comanche Outcrop on Mars Indicates Hospitable Past
Explanation: Could life once have survived on Mars? Today, neither animal nor plant life from Earth could survive for very long on Mars because at least one key ingredient -- liquid water -- is essentially absent on the red planet's rusty surface. Although evidence from the martian rovers indicates that long ago Mars might once have had liquid water on its surface, that water might also have been too acidic for familiar life forms to thrive. Recently, however, a newly detailed analysis of an unusual outcropping of rock and soil chanced upon in 2005 by the robotic Spirit rover has uncovered a clue indicating that not all of Mars was always so acidic. The mound in question, dubbed Comanche Outcrop and visible near the top of the above image, appears to contain unusually high concentrations of elements such as magnesium iron carbonate. The above image is shown in colors exaggerated to highlight the differences in composition. Since these carbonates dissolve in acid, the persistence of these mounds indicates that water perhaps less acidic and more favorable for life might have once flowed across Mars. More detailed analyses and searches for other signs will surely continue.
APOD: 2010 August 27 - Brighter Than Mars
Explanation: Even though you may have just read an email claiming Mars will be incredibly bright tonight, the brightest star on the horizon is not Mars. From central Iran on August 24th, the brightest star in this twilight desert skyview is Venus, aka the Evening Star. But a bright Mars is in the picture, just above and right of more brilliant Venus. Despite claims in the internet's annually returning Mars Hoax that Mars will be as big and bright as the Full Moon, this celestial scenario is very similar to the western sky you can see tonight. Along with Mars, the still beautiful vista includes Spica, alpha star of the constellation Virgo, above and left of Venus. Farther right of Venus, Saturn peeks through the sunset's fading glow just above the clouds. Near the opposite horizon, the Full Moon illuminating the desert is about 400,000 times brighter than Mars.
APOD: 2010 June 13 - Retrograde Mars
Explanation: Why would Mars appear to move backwards? Most of the time, the apparent motion of Mars in Earth's sky is in one direction, slow but steady in front of the far distant stars. About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. During the most recent such pass late last year and early this year, Mars as usual, loomed large and bright. Also during this time, Mars appeared to move backwards in the sky, a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Pictured above is a series of images digitally stacked so that all of the stars images coincide. Here, Mars appears to trace out a loop in the sky. At the center of the loop, Earth passed Mars and the retrograde motion was the highest. Retrograde motion can also be seen for other Solar System planets.
APOD: 2010 May 25 - Looking Back Across Mars
Explanation: It's been a long trip for the Martian rover Opportunity. Last week Opportunity surpassed Viking 1 as the longest running mission on Mars, now extending well over six years. Pictured above, Opportunity's tire tracks cross a nearly featureless Martian desert, emanating from a distant horizon. Landing in 2004 in Meridiani Planum, the robotic Opportunity has embarked on its longest and most dangerous trek yet, now aiming to reach large Endeavor Crater sometime next year. Endeavor, it is hoped, holds new clues to the ancient geology of Mars and whether Mars could once have harbored life.
APOD: 2010 May 5 - The Faces of Mars
Explanation: Enthusiastic astro-artists ranging from expert to beginner, the youngest age 10, all contributed their work to this entertaining panel featuring different faces of Mars. Their sketches are all based on telescopic views of the Red Planet from earlier this year, near its 2010 opposition. Mars offers the best telescopic views at opposition, since that's when it is closest and opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky. Arranged in a spiral pattern, the sketches are positioned to follow the planet's rotation. No canals are visible(!), but large surface markings such as the dramatic, dark Syrtis Major are easily identified. As often seen through an astronomical telescope eyepiece, the planet's orientation is inverted, with Mars' north polar cap at the bottom.
APOD: 2010 April 30 - Mars in a Manger
Explanation: At opposition in late January, Mars shone very brightly in planet Earth's night sky, among the stars of the constellation Cancer the Crab. Since then the Red Planet has been fading, but still lingers in Cancer during April and May. In mid-April, Mars wandered remarkably close to Cancer's famous star cluster M44, the Beehive Cluster. M44 is also known by an older name, Praesepe, Latin for cradle or manger. Captured in this 60 second time exposure made on April 14, a yellow-tinged Mars and M44 are near the center of the field, seemingly just beyond the reach of a pine tree. Of course, M44's stars are about 600 light-years away, while Mars was more like 600 light-seconds from Earth. The digital photograph was made with a camera mounted on a telescope tracking the stars through dark skies above a camp ground in Virginia, USA. During the exposure, passing car lights briefly illuminated the tree branches.
APOD: 2010 March 17 - Phobos from Mars Express
Explanation: Why is this small object orbiting Mars? The origin of Phobos, the larger of the two moons orbiting Mars, remains unknown. Phobos and Deimos appear very similar to C-type asteroids, yet gravitationally capturing such asteroids, circularizing their orbits, and dragging them into Mars' equatorial plane seems unlikely. Pictured above is Phobos as it appeared during last week's flyby of ESA's Mars Express, a robotic spacecraft that began orbiting Mars in 2003. Visible in great detail is Phobos' irregular shape, strangely dark terrain, numerous unusual grooves, and a spectacular chain of craters crossing the image center. Phobos spans only about 25 kilometers in length and does not have enough gravity to compress it into a ball. Phobos orbits so close to Mars that sometime in the next 20 million years, tidal deceleration will break up the rubble moon into a ring whose pieces will slowly spiral down and crash onto the red planet. The Russian mission Phobos-Grunt is scheduled to launch and land on Phobos next year.
APOD: 2010 March 8 - Mars Over the Allalinhorn
Explanation: What's that bright object in the sky? A common question with answers that vary by time and season, the quick answer just after sunset in middle of last month, from the northern hemisphere, was Mars. The above picturesque panorama, taken during a ski trip from the Alps in Switzerland, shows not only Mars, but much more. Pine trees line the foreground, while numerous slopes leading up to the snow covered Allalinhorn mountain are visible in the distance. Stars dot the background, with the Beehive star cluster (M44) visible just below and to the left of Mars, while stars Castor and Pollux peek through the tree tops to the Mars' upper right. Mars will remain bright and in the constellation of the Crab (Cancer) until mid-May.
APOD: 2010 March 7 - Spirit Rover at Engineering Flats on Mars
Explanation: Is it art? If so, the paintbrush was the Spirit robotic rover, the canvas was the soil on Mars, and the artists were the scientists and engineers of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. This panoramic picture, created in 2004 and shown above compressed horizontally, was mostly unintentional -- the MERS team was primarily instructing Spirit to investigate rocks in and around Hank's Hollow in a location called Engineering Flats on Mars. After creating the ground display with its treads, the Spirit rover was instructed to photograph the area along with itself in shadow. In 2010 as winter approaches in northern Mars, Spirit, still mired in sand, has been placed in an energy saving "hibernating" mode until spring arrives and more direct sunlight might be used to power the robotic explorer.
APOD: 2010 March 1 - Slope Streaks in Acheron Fossae on Mars
Explanation: What creates these picturesque dark streaks on Mars? No one knows for sure. A leading hypothesis is that streaks like these are caused by fine grained sand sliding down the banks of troughs and craters. Pictured above, dark sand appears to have flowed hundreds of meters down the slopes of Acheron Fossae. The sand appears to flow like a liquid around boulders, and, for some reason, lightens significantly over time. This sand flow process is one of several which can rapidly change the surface of Mars, with other processes including dust devils, dust storms, and the freezing and melting of areas of ice. The above image was taken by the HiRise camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been orbiting Mars since 2006. Acheron Fossae is a 700 kilometer long trough in the Diacria quadrangle of Mars.
APOD: 2010 February 2 - Mars and a Colorful Lunar Fog Bow
Explanation: Even from the top of a volcanic crater, this vista was unusual. For one reason, Mars was dazzlingly bright two weeks ago, when this picture was taken, as it was nearing its brightest time of the entire year. Mars, on the far upper left, is the brightest object in the above picture. The brightness of the red planet peaked last week near when Mars reached opposition, the time when Earth and Mars are closest together in their orbits. Arching across the lower part of the image is a rare lunar fog bow. Unlike a more commonly seen rainbow, which is created by sunlight reflected prismatically by falling rain, this fog bow was created by moonlight reflected by the small water drops that compose fog. Although most fog bows appear white, all of the colors of the rainbow were somehow visible here. The above image was taken from high atop Haleakala, a huge volcano in Hawaii, USA.
APOD: 2010 January 29 - Mars Opposition 2010
Explanation: Mars is at opposition tonight, opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky. Of course, it will be easy to spot because Mars appears close to tonight's Full Moon, also opposite the Sun in Earth's night sky in the constellation Cancer. For this opposition, Mars remains just over 99 million kilometers away, not a particularly close approach for the Red Planet. Still, this sharp view of Mars recorded on January 22nd is an example of the telescopic images possible in the coming days. The planet's whitish north polar cap is at the upper right. Mars' tiny red disk is about 14 arcseconds in angular diameter, less than 1/100th the diameter of the Full Moon.
APOD: 2009 November 29 - Ancient Layered Hills on Mars
Explanation: Is this a picture of Mars or Earth? Oddly enough, it is a picture of Mars. What may appear to some as a terrestrial coastline is in fact a formation of ancient layered hills and wind-blown sand on Mars. The above-pictured region spans about three kilometers in Schiaparelli Crater. What created the layers of sediment is still a topic of research. Viable hypotheses include ancient epochs of deposit either from running water or wind-blown sand. Winds and sandstorms have smoothed and eroded the structures more recently. The "water" that appears near the bottom is actually dark colored sand. The image was taken with the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft that operated around Mars from 1996-2006 and returned over 200,000 images.
APOD: 2009 October 19 - Nereus Crater on Mars
Explanation: It was along the way. The robotic rover Opportunity currently rolling across the Meridiani Plain on Mars has a destination of Endeavour Crater, a large crater over 20 kilometers across which may yield additional clues about the cryptic past of ancient Mars. Besides passing open fields of dark soil and light rock, Opportunity has chanced upon several interesting features. One such feature, pictured above in a digitally stitched and horizontally compressed panorama, is Nereus Crater, a small crater about 10 meters across that is surrounded by jagged rock. Besides Nereus, Opportunity recently also happened upon another unusual rock -- one that appears to be the third large meteorite found on Mars and the second for Opportunity during only this trip. Opportunity has been traveling toward Endeavour Crater for over a year now, and if it can avoid ridged rocks and soft sand along the way, it may reach Endeavour sometime next year.
APOD: 2009 August 13 - Block Island Meteorite on Mars
Explanation: What is this strange rock on Mars? Sitting on a smooth plane, the rock stands out for its isolation, odd shape, large size and unusual texture. The rock was discovered by the robotic Opportunity rover rolling across Mars late last month. Pictured, Opportunity prepares to inspect the unusual rock. After being X-rayed, poked, and chemically analyzed, the rock has now been identified by Opportunity as a fallen meteorite. Now dubbed Block Island, the meteorite has been measured to be about 2/3 of a meter across and is now known to be composed mostly of nickel and iron. This is the second meteorite found by a martian rover, and so far the largest. Vast smooth spaces on Mars and Earth can make large meteorites stand out. Opportunity continues its trip across Meridiani Planum on Mars and is on schedule to reach expansive Endeavour Crater next year.
APOD: 2009 June 1 - Spirit Encounters Soft Ground on Mars
Explanation: Will Spirit be able to free itself from soft ground on Mars? The robotic Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars ran into unexpectedly soft ground last month while exploring the red planet. A worry is that the ground is so soft that Spirit won't be able to free itself, will have to stay put and thereafter study what it can from its current position near an unusual martian land feature named Home Plate. Pictured above, the front left wheel appears to be primarily digging itself in when spun, while on the other side, the front right wheel no longer spins and is dragged by the five year old mechanical explorer. In the distance, rocks and rusty dirt fill the alien landscape in front of the distant Husband Hill. NASA continues to study the situation, and engineers and scientists have not yet run out of ideas of how to use Spirit's six wheels. Far across Mars, Spirit's twin Opportunity continues on its two year trek toward Endeavour crater.
APOD: 2009 April 20 - Flowing Barchan Sand Dunes on Mars
Explanation: When does Mars act like a liquid? Although liquids freeze and evaporate quickly into the thin atmosphere of Mars, persistent winds may make large sand dunes appear to flow and even drip like a liquid. Visible on the above image right are two flat top mesas in southern Mars, where the season is changing from Spring to Summer. A light dome topped hill is also visible on the far left of the image. As winds blow from right to left, flowing sand on and around the hills leaves picturesque streaks. The dark arc-shaped droplets of fine sand are called barchans, and are the interplanetary cousins of similar Earth-based sand forms. Barchans can move intact downwind and can even appear to pass through each other. Over the past few weeks, winds on southern Mars have been kicking up dust and are being watched to see if they escalate into another of Mars' famous planet-scale sand storms.
APOD: 2009 March 30 - Possible Mud Volcanoes on Mars
Explanation: Is this a mud volcano on Mars? If so, could it be dredging up martian microbes? This strange possibility has been suggested recently and seems to fit several recent observations of Mars. First of all, hills like this seem to better resemble mud volcanoes on Earth than lava volcanoes and impact craters on Mars. Next, the pictured dome has an unusually textured surface consistent with fractured ice. Infrared images from space indicate that hills like this cool more quickly than surrounding rock, consistent with a dried mud composition. The hills also reflect colors consistent with a composition that formed in the presence of water. Finally, unusual plumes of gas containing methane have been found on Mars with unknown origin. These gas plumes could conceivably have been liberated by mud volcanoes, were the initially warm mud to contain methane-producing microbes drifting in a previously unobservable underground lake. A candidate mud volcano over 100 meters across is pictured above in the northern plains of Mars.
APOD: 2009 January 19 - Methane Discovered in the Atmosphere of Mars
Explanation: Why is there methane on Mars? No one is sure. An important confirmation that methane exists in the atmosphere of Mars occurred last week, bolstering previous controversial claims made as early as 2003. The confirmation was made spectroscopically using large ground-based telescopes by finding precise colors absorbed on Mars that match those absorbed by methane on Earth. Given that methane is destroyed in the open martian air in a matter of years, the present existence of the fragile gas indicates that it is currently being released, somehow, from the surface of Mars. One prospect is that microbes living underground are creating it, or created it in the past. If true, this opens the exciting possibility that life might be present under the surface of Mars even today. Given the present data, however, it is also possible that a purely geologic process, potentially involving volcanism or rust and not involving any life forms, is the methane creator. Pictured above is an image of Mars superposed with a map of the recent methane detection.
APOD: 2008 November 24 - Radar Indicates Buried Glaciers on Mars
Explanation: What created this unusual terrain on Mars? The floors of several mid-latitude craters in Hellas Basin on Mars appear unusually grooved, flat, and shallow. New radar images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter bolster an exciting hypothesis: huge glaciers of buried ice. Evidence indicates that such glaciers cover an area larger than a city and extend as much as a kilometer deep. The ice would have been kept from evaporating into the thin Martian air by a covering of dirt. If true, this would indicate the largest volume of water ice outside of the Martian poles, much larger than the frozen puddles recently discovered by the Phoenix lander. Such lake-sized ice blocks located so close to the Martian equator might make a good drinking reservoir for future astronauts exploring Mars. How the glaciers originally formed remains a mystery. In the meantime, before packing up to explore Mars, please take a moment to suggest a name for NASA's next Martian rover.
APOD: 2008 August 12 - A Mars Panorama from the Phoenix Lander
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars, what would you see? The robotic Phoenix spacecraft that just landed on Mars in May recorded the above spectacular panorama. The above image is actually a digital combination of over 100 camera pointings and surveys fully 360 degrees around the busy robotic laboratory. Clicking on the horizontally compressed image above will bring up the extra-wide uncompressed version. Visible in the image foreground are circular solar panels, various Phoenix instruments, rust colored rocks, a trench dug by Phoenix to probe Mars' chemical composition, a vast plateau of dirt and dirt-covered ice, and, far in the distance, the dust colored atmosphere of Mars. Phoenix landed in the far north of Mars and has been using its sophisticated laboratory to search for signs that past life might have been possible. Recent soil analyses have confirmed the presence of ice, but gave conflicting indications of unexpected perchlorate salts. Whether perchlorates exist on Mars is now being aggressively researched, as well as what effects perchlorates might have had on the past development of life.
APOD: 2008 July 23 - High Cliffs Surrounding Echus Chasma on Mars
Explanation: What created this great cliff on Mars? Did giant waterfalls once plummet through its grooves? With a four-kilometer drop, this high cliff surrounding Echus Chasma, near an impressive impact crater, was carved by either water or lava. A leading hypothesis is that Echus Chasma, at 100-kilometers long and 10-kilometers wide, was once one of the largest water sources on Mars. If true, water once held in Echus Chasma likely ran over the Martian surface to carve the impressive Kasei Valles, which extends over 3,000 kilometers to the north. Even if initially carved by water, lava appears to have later flowed in the valley, leaving an extraordinarily smooth floor. Echus Chasma lies north of tremendous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System. The above image was taken by the robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
APOD: 2008 July 14 - Changes in Angular Mars
Explanation: Does Mars always appear the same? No. As both Earth and Mars orbit the Sun, the apparent angular size of Mars changes as viewed from the Earth. Pictured above from Enschede, Holland, Mars was captured in 2007 and 2008 with 30 separate images, all taken with the same magnification. When Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun, Mars appears relatively small. Conversely, when Earth and Mars are near each other, Mars looms large and bright. The largest Mars has appeared in recent history was the opposition of August 2003. Since Mars is always more distant from the Sun than the Earth, Mars never shows a crescent phase to Earthlings. Visible also in the above images are the north polar cap of Mars, dark and light soil, clouds, and, in the early images, a global dust storm. The next opposition, when Earth again passes near to Mars, will occur in early 2010.
APOD: 2008 May 25 - Phoenix Lander Arrives at Mars
Explanation: Will Phoenix survive its landing today on Mars? Phoenix's landing sequence will ramp up starting at about 7:30 pm EDT (23:30 UTC) today and last just over an hour. If all goes well, one of Phoenix's first images from Mars will appear on APOD tomorrow. The Phoenix Lander is programmed to set down near the North Pole of Mars, and, over the next three months, sample alien soil and ice and look for conditions conducive for ancient microbial life. Shown above is an artistic animation of what it might look like to see Phoenix land on Mars. In the animated sequence, the Phoenix spacecraft arrives at Mars, deploys its braking parachute, jettisons its heat shield, fires it thrusters, lands, unfurls its solar panels, deploys its instruments, scoops up some of Mars, and begins its analysis.
APOD: 2008 May 19 - Flying Over the Columbia Hills of Mars
Explanation: What it would be like to fly over Mars? Combining terrain data from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft with information about the robotic Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars has resulted in a digital movie that shows what a flight over the Columbia Hills might look like. Dark rippled sand dunes are highlighted against the Columbia Hills in the above opening image. Clicking on the above image, though, will launch you across Mars, approaching the Columbia Hills. On the far side of the hills, the dark sand dunes come into view. Soon you pass an unusual white-rimmed structure, slightly raised, known as Home Plate, the origin of which is currently unknown and being researched. Turning, you re-approach the hills from a different angle, this time zooming in on Spirit, a curious alien rover sent from planet Earth. A final zoom pans out over the region. This coming Sunday, NASA's Phoenix Lander will attempt to set down near the icy North Pole of Mars and search for signs of ancient life.
APOD: 2008 May 11 - Retrograde Mars
Explanation: Why would Mars appear to move backwards? Most of the time, the apparent motion of Mars in Earth's sky is in one direction, slow but steady in front of the far distant stars. About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. During the most recent such pass over the last year, the proximity of Mars made the red planet appear larger and brighter than usual. Also during this time, Mars appeared to move backwards in the sky, a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Pictured above is a series of images digitally stacked so that all of the stars images coincide. Here, Mars appears to trace out a loop in the sky. Near the top of the loop, Earth passed Mars and the retrograde motion was the highest. Retrograde motion can also be seen for other Solar System planets.
APOD: 2008 April 14 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The larger moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning color image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so Phobos will likely be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a decaying ring around Mars.
APOD: 2008 April 7 - Mysterious White Rock Fingers on Mars
Explanation: What caused this unusual white rock formation on Mars? Intrigued by the possibility that they could be salt deposits left over as an ancient lakebed dried-up, detailed studies of these fingers now indicate that this is not correct. The light material appears to have eroded away from the surrounding area, indicating a very low-density composition, possibly consistent with volcanic ash or windblown dust. The stark contrast between the rocks and the surrounding sand is compounded by the sand's unusual darkness. This picture was taken from the Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. Planetary scientist Emily Lakdawalla, among others, has followed her curiosity about this unusual Martian landform into a fascinating investigation that is eloquently described in the Planetary Society Weblog. The mysterious white rock spans about 15 kilometers across inside a larger crater that spans about 100 kilometers.
APOD: 2008 March 11 - An Avalanche on Mars
Explanation: What caused this sudden cloud of dust on Mars? An avalanche! The first avalanche imaged in progress on another planet was recorded last month on Mars by NASA's robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Visible in the above picture, digitally rescaled, are several layers of white ice thawing over red rock, with darker colors toward the right indicated Martian soil that mixed with lesser amounts of ice. As the cliff of over 700 meters high was thawing, falling ice crashed down raising plumes of ice and dust so thick they cast visible shadows. The scarp has slopes with grades greater than 60 degrees. The entire scene is illuminated from the upper right by the Sun. A thaw occurs each spring in the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, as the warming climate causes solid carbon dioxide ice to sublimate directly to vapor. Studying such avalanches allows planetary geologists to better understand soil configurations on Mars.
APOD: 2007 December 23 - Moon and Mars Tonight
Explanation: The Full Moon and a brilliant, ruddy Mars will share the sky tonight. Skygazers can easily enjoy the celestial pairing as the two are separated by a degree or even less. In fact, seen from parts of northern North America and Europe, the Moon will actually occult (pass in front of) the Red Planet. Mars is so bright because it is near opposition, opposite the Sun in Earth's sky and near its closest approach to planet Earth. But Mars is not nearly as bright as the Moon, also opposite the Sun tonight. In this striking preview of tonight's sky show, backyard astronomer John Harms was able to photograph an almost Full Moon near Mars last month. His simple, single exposure relied on clouds to block some of the overwhelming moonlight.
APOD: 2007 December 18 - Unusual Silica Rich Soil Discovered on Mars
Explanation: You're rolling across Mars when you unexpectedly uncover some unusually light soil. You stop. You turn. You return to inspect the soil and find out it is almost purely silica -- the main ingredient in quartz and glass. Such soil has never been found on Mars before. What created this soil? Since you are the robotic rover Spirit currently rolling across Mars, you send the images and data back to Earth for analysis. Your scientist friends from the blue water planet say that such soil on Earth is usually created by either volcanic steam or a hot spring. The second hypothesis in particular indicates, once again, a wet past for part of Mars, as possibly hot water saturated with silica deposited the white soil. Intriguingly, on Earth, living microbes typically flourish under either condition. Pictured above, the uncovered light soil is visible on the right.
APOD: 2007 December 6 - Mars in View
Explanation: Very good telescopic views of Mars can be expected in the coming weeks as the Red Planet nears opposition on December 24th. Of course, opposition means opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky - an arrangement that occurs every 26 months for Mars. Because of Mars' more elliptical orbit, the actual date of closest approach to Earth will be December 18, when Mars will be within about 88 million kilometers of our fair planet. Situated in the constellation Gemini and rising after evening twilight, the bright, ruddy disk of Mars will reach nearly 16 arcseconds in diameter (about 1/100th the diameter of the Full Moon). In this already exceptional image taken on November 18, north is down and surface markings around the sprawling, dark, albedo feature Syrtis Major are remarkably clear. The image was recorded with a video camera and filters on a 1 meter telescope at Pic Du Midi, a mountain top observatory in the French Pyrenees. NASA launched the Phoenix lander to Mars in August, scheduled to arrive in May 2008.
APOD: 2007 October 22 - Victoria Crater on Mars
Explanation: Scroll right to see the largest crater yet visited by a rover on Mars. Reaching the expansive Victoria Crater has been a goal for the robotic Opportunity rover rolling across Mars for the past two years. Victoria crater has about five times the diameter of Endurance Crater, which Opportunity spent six months exploring. Opportunity reached Victoria last year, and was cautiously probing the edges of the stadium-sized crevice while waiting for large dust storms to clear. A safe path was found, and Opportunity has slowly entered into Victoria Crater. It is hoped that Victoria Crater will show a deep stack of layers uncovered by the initial impact, and hence new clues into the ancient surface history of Mars. Visible in the distance in the above mosaic is the far rim of Victoria Crater, lying about 800 meters away and rising about 70 meters above the crater floor. The alcove in front has been dubbed Duck Bay.
APOD: 2007 August 28 - Could Hydrogen Peroxide Life Survive on Mars
Explanation: Is there life on Mars? Although no unambiguous evidence for indigenous life on Mars has ever been found, a more speculative question -- could some life forms survive on Mars -- has taken on a new twist. Two planetary scientists recently speculated that were extremophile microbes to involve a mixture of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) and water (H2O), these microbes might well be able survive the thin, cold, dry atmosphere on Mars. Life that involves hydrogen peroxide does exist here on Earth, they note, and such life would be better able to absorb water on Mars. They also claim that such life would be consistent with the ambiguous results coming out from the life-detecting experiments aboard the old Viking Landers. Although such speculation is not definitive, debating possibilities for life on Mars has again proven to be fun and a magnet for media attention. Pictured above, the Viking Lander 2 captured an unusual image of the Martian surface in 1979 sporting a thin layer of seasonal water ice.
APOD: 2007 August 8 - Phoenix Rises Toward Mars
Explanation: Can Mars sustain life? To help answer this question, last week NASA launched the Phoenix mission to Mars. In May 2008, Phoenix is expected to land in an unexplored north polar region of Mars that is rich in water-ice. Although Phoenix cannot move, it can deploy its cameras, robotic arm, and a small chemistry laboratory to inspect, dig, and chemically analyze its landing area. One hope is that Phoenix will be able to discern telling clues to the history of ice and water on Mars. Phoenix is also poised to explore the boundary between ice and soil in hopes of finding clues of a habitable zone there that could support microbial life. Phoenix has a planned lifetime of three months on the Martian surface.
APOD: 2007 July 1 - Steep Cliffs on Mars
Explanation: Vertical cliffs of nearly two kilometers occur near the North Pole of Mars. Also visible in the above image of the Martian North Polar Cap are red areas of rock and sand, white areas of ice, and dark areas of unknown composition but hypothesized to be volcanic ash. The cliffs are thought to border volcanic caldera. Although the sheer drop of the Martian cliffs is extreme, the drop is not as deep as other areas in our Solar System, including the 3.4-kilometer depth of Colca Canyon on Earth and the 20 kilometer depth of Verona Rupes on Uranus' moon Miranda. The above image, digitally reconstructed into a perspective view, was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the ESA's robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
APOD: 2007 May 28 - A Hole in Mars
Explanation: Black spots have been discovered on Mars that are so dark that nothing inside can be seen. Quite possibly, the spots are entrances to deep underground caves capable of protecting Martian life, were it to exist. The unusual hole pictured above was found on the slopes of the giant Martian volcano Arsia Mons. The above image was captured three weeks ago by the HiRISE instrument onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently circling Mars. The holes were originally identified on lower resolution images from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, The above hole is about the size of a football field and is so deep that it is completely unilluminated by the Sun. Such holes and underground caves might be prime targets for future spacecraft, robots, and even the next generation of human interplanetary explorers.
APOD: 2007 April 21 - 3D Face on Mars
Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and gaze down on this weathered mesa on Mars. Of course, described as a rock formation that resembles a human head in a 1976 NASA press release, this mesa is also famous as the Face on Mars. The sharp stereo image was created by combining high resolution pictures from cameras on two different spacecraft in Mars orbit - Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Global surveyor. It shows rugged details of the approximately 2 kilometer wide, isolated hill - similar to mesa landforms on planet Earth - rising some 240 meters above the plains of the martian Cydonia region. This remarkable 3D view exaggerates the hill's vertical dimensions.
APOD: 2006 December 12 - Light Deposits Indicate Water Flowing on Mars
Explanation: What's creating light-toned deposits on Mars? Quite possibly -- water! Images of the same parts of mid-latitude Mars taken over the years but released only last week have shown unexpected new light-toned deposits where there were none before. One clear case is shown above, where the same crater on Mars is shown as photographed in 1999 August and again in 2005 September. The unusual deposit is visible only on the more recent photograph. Apparent tributaries near the bottom bolster the leading hypothesis that water gushed out of the crater wall, flowed down the crater, and soon evaporated into the thin Martian atmosphere. Although frozen water-ice has been known near the Martian poles for years, free flowing surface water like this was not expected to be seen in the mid-latitudes of Mars. If confirmed, such water springs might make more of Mars hospitable to life and human visitation than previously believed.
APOD: 2006 December 6 - Spirit Rover on Mars Imaged from Orbit
Explanation: If you have the right equipment, you can see the Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars. The right equipment, however, is currently limited to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). MRO arrived at Mars in March and just started science observations of the red planet last month. Visible in the above spectacularly high resolution image is the Spirit rover in the Columbia Hills of Mars. Objects as small as one meter are resolved. Also visible are the tracks made by the robot explorer and a large plateau of layered rock dubbed Home Plate. MRO will continue to image the red planet in unprecedented detail, creating images that will likely be important in better understanding the geology and weather on Mars, as well as indicating good candidate landing sites for future missions to Mars.
APOD: 2006 December 3 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The larger moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning color image from the Mars Express spacecraft, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
APOD: 2006 October 17 - Clouds and Sand on the Horizon of Mars
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars -- what might you see? Like the robotic Opportunity rover rolling across the red planet, you might well see vast plains of red sand, an orange tinted sky, and wispy light clouds. The Opportunity rover captured just such a vista after arriving at Victoria Crater earlier this month, albeit in a completely different direction from the large crater. Unlike other Martian vistas, few rocks are visible in this exaggerated color image mosaic. The distant red horizon is so flat and featureless that it appears similar to the horizon toward a calm blue ocean on Earth. Clouds on Mars can be composed of either carbon dioxide ice or water ice, and can move quickly, like clouds move on Earth. The red dust in the Martian air can change the sky color above Mars from the blue that occurs above Earth toward the red, with the exact color depending on the density and particle size of the floating dust particles.
APOD: 2006 October 9 - Mars Rover at Victoria Crater Imaged from Orbit
Explanation: An unusual spot has been found on Mars that scientists believe is not natural in origin. The spot appears mobile and is now hypothesized to be a robot created by an intelligent species alien to Mars. In fact, the spot appears to be NASA's robotic Opportunity rover currently rolling across Mars. The ability to see the Martian rover from orbit has recently been demonstrated by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The new spacecraft achieved orbit around Mars in 2006 March. Last week, MRO imaged the location of Victoria Crater and the rover Opportunity that had just arrived there. In the above image at spectacularly high resolution, objects about one meter in size are resolved, and this includes the rolling rover. Such images may help scientists better determine if any safe path exists for Opportunity to enter large crater. In the inset image on the upper left, the whole of Victoria Crater was also imaged by MRO.
APOD: 2006 October 2 - Victoria Crater on Mars
Explanation: Scroll right to see the largest crater yet visited by a rover on Mars. Reaching the expansive Victoria Crater has been a goal for the robotic Opportunity rover rolling across Mars for the past 21 months. Opportunity reached Victoria last week, and is cautiously probing the stadium-sized crevice. It is hoped that Victoria Crater will show a deep stack of layers uncovered by the initial impact, and hence new clues into the ancient surface history of Mars. Visible in the distance of the above image mosaic is the far rim of Victoria Crater, lying about 800 meters away and rising about 70 meters above the crater floor. The alcove in front has been dubbed Duck Bay. Victoria crater has about five times the diameter of Endurance Crater, which Opportunity spent six months exploring. If a safe path is found, Opportunity may actually attempt to enter Victoria Crater.
APOD: 2006 September 26- Mars Express: Return to Cydonia
Explanation: The unusual stone mesas of the Cydonia region on Mars are quite striking in appearance. Last week, the Mars Express project released a new close-up image of a portion of the Cydonia region on Mars. This new image, taken by the robotic Mars Express spacecraft now orbiting Mars, shows an area about 90 kilometers wide. In the far lower right of the above image, a particularly picturesque mesa can be seen as the upper right of the two mesas visible there. This mesa, when lit from just the right sun angle, can appear similar to a human face and became famous as the Face on Mars in 1976 Viking orbiter images. Better images show it to be just an interesting mesa. Such complex looking landforms in the Cydonia region are thought to be the result of landslides and erosion of the ancient Martian crust.
APOD: 2006 September 25 - Mars Express Close Up of the Face on Mars
Explanation: Wouldn't it be fun if clouds were turtles? Wouldn't it be fun if the laundry on the bedroom chair was a friendly monster? Wouldn't it be fun if rock mesas on Mars were faces or interplanetary monuments? Clouds, though, are small water droplets, floating on air. Laundry is cotton, wool, or plastic, woven into garments. Famous Martian rock mesas known by names like the Face on Mars appear quite natural when seen more clearly, as the above recently-released digital-perspective image shows. Is reality boring?
APOD: 2006 August 23 - Sandy Gas Jets Hypothesized on Mars
Explanation: What's causing seasonal dark spots on Mars? Every spring, strange dark spots appear near the Martian poles, and then vanish a few months later. These spots typically span 50 meters across and appear fan shaped. Recent observations made with THEMIS instrument onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey, currently orbiting Mars, found the spots to be as cold as the carbon dioxide (CO2) ice beneath them. Based on this evidence, a new hypothesis has been suggested where the spots are caused by explosive jets of sand-laden CO2. As a pole warms up in the spring, frozen CO2 on the surface thins, perforates, and begins to vent gaseous CO2 held underneath. Within this hypothesis, interspersed dark sand would explain the color of the spots, while the underlying frozen CO2 would explain the coolness of the spots. Pictured above, an artist depicts what it might be like to stand on Mars and witness the venting of these tremendous gas and dust jets.
APOD: 2006 May 15 - Volcanic Bumpy Boulder on Mars
Explanation: What created this unusually textured rock on Mars? Most probably: a volcano. Dubbed Bumpy Boulder, the strange stone measuring just under a half-meter high was found by the robotic Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars. Pits on the ragged rock are likely vesicles and arise from hot gas bubbling out of hot rock ejected by an active Martian volcano. Several similar rocks are visible near Bumpy Boulder that likely have a similar past. The above true-color image was taken about one month ago. The Spirit rover, now in its third year of operation on Mars, is weathering the low sunlight winter of Mar's northern hemisphere on a hillside slope in order to maximize the amount of absorbable battery-refreshing sunlight.
APOD: 2006 April 10 - Mars: The View from HiRISE
Explanation: HiRISE - the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment - rides on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)spacecraft just arrived in Mars orbit on March 10. This sharp view of the martian surface from the HiRISE camera includes image data with a full resolution of about 2.5 meters per pixel - recorded from a range of 2,500 kilometers. In the coming months, MRO's orbit will be circularized through repeated passages into Mars' outer atmosphere, a process known as aerobraking, shrinking its orbit to an altitude of only 280 kilometers. At that distance, the HiRISE experiment should be able to image the Red Planet's surface at a resolution of 28 centimeters (11 inches) per pixel. In this first color image, the false colors represent HiRISE's visible and infrared imaging data combined. The picture is nearly 24 kilometers wide and covers an area in the Bosporos Planum region of southern Mars.
APOD: 2005 December 14 - A Digital Opportunity Rover on Mars
Explanation: If you could see one of the robot rovers currently rolling across Mars, what would it look like? To gain this perspective useful in planning explorations, the above synthetic image was produced digitally. Above, a digital model of the Opportunity rover was added to a real image of the inside of Endurance Crater on Mars taken earlier by Opportunity itself. The size of the six-wheeled robot was scaled to the size of the tracks that the Opportunity rover actually created. In actuality, both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers currently rolling across Mars each span about two meters and so are similar in size to a large rolling desk. Also visible in the image is dark soil, ancient light rock and numerous small gray pellets known as blueberries.
APOD: 2005 October 28 - October Mars
Explanation: This October, Mars has become a bright, yellowish star in planet Earth's sky as it approaches oppositon, the period when Mars and Earth pass close as they orbit the Sun. How close is Mars? A mere 70 million kilometers or so, close enough to allow Earth-bound astronomers excellent views of the alluring Red Planet. For example, this series of sharp Mars images follows the development of a dust storm as the planet rotates from right to left. The telescopic views clearly show details of the martian surface, including the planet's southern ice cap (top) and hood of clouds over the north pole at the bottom edge. The dust storm itself is visible as a light yellowish band across an otherwise dark region in the southern hemisphere. Even if a telescope isn't handy, be sure to check out Mars soon. It will continue to shine brightly in the night over the coming days.
APOD: 2005 August 8 - Mars to Appear Normal this August
Explanation: Will Mars appear extremely close and bright later this month? No. Regardless of numerous urban legends circulating, Mars will appear relatively normal in August. October is the best month to see Mars this year. The red planet is now visible in the morning before sunrise. As Earth catches up to Mars in their respective orbits around the Sun, Mars will keep rising earlier in the night. On 2005 October 30, Earth will have caught up to Mars and the planets will be the nearest to each other in their orbits -- this time around. On October 30, Mars will be nearly opposite to the Sun, rise at sunset, set at sunrise, and appear highest and brightest around midnight. Also on October 30, Mars will appear brighter than it has in the past two years, although still over 10,000 times smaller and fainter than the full Moon. Earth will then pass Mars, and Mars will appear to fade. Pictured above, Mars is shown as it appeared 2003 August 27, when it appeared slightly brighter than it had in nearly 60,000 years. The foreground setting is in the Valley of Fire state park in Nevada, USA. The ellipticity of orbits primarily determines the closeness and brightness of Mars during opposition.
APOD: 2005 April 12 - Earth or Mars?
Explanation: Which image is Earth, and which is Mars? One of the above images was taken by the robot Spirit rover currently climbing Husband Hill on Mars. The other image was taken by a human across the desert south of Morocco on Earth. Both images show vast plains covered with rocks and sand. Neither shows water or obvious signs of life. Each planet has a surface so complex that any one image does not do that planet justice. Understanding either one, it turns out, helps understand the other. Does the one on the left look like home? Possibly not, but it is Earth.
APOD: 2005 March 15 - Steep Cliffs on Mars
Explanation: Vertical cliffs of nearly two kilometers occur near the North Pole of Mars. Also visible in the above image of the Martian North Polar Cap are red areas of rock and sand, white areas of ice, and dark areas of unknown composition but hypothesized to be volcanic ash. The cliffs are thought to border volcanic caldera. Although the sheer drop of the Martian cliffs is extreme, the drop is not as deep as other areas in our Solar System, including the 3.4-kilometer depth of Colca Canyon on Earth and the 20 kilometer depth of Verona Rupes on Uranus' moon Miranda. The above image, digitally reconstructed into a perspective view, was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the ESA's robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
APOD: 2005 February 28 - Unusual Plates on Mars
Explanation: What are those unusual plates on Mars? A leading current interpretation holds that they are blocks of ice floating on a recently frozen sea covered by dust. The unusual plates were photographed recently by the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. Oddly, the region lies near the Martian equator and not near either of Mars' frozen polar caps. Without being covered by dust, any water or ice near away from the poles would quickly evaporate right into the atmosphere. Evidence that the above-imaged plates really are dust-covered water-ice includes a similarity in appearance to ice blocks off Earth's Antarctica, nearby surface fractures from which underground water could have flowed, and the shallow depth of the craters indicating that something is filling them in. If correct, the low abundance of craters indicates that water may have flowed on Mars as recently as five million years ago.
APOD: 2005 January 21 - Metal on the Plains of Mars
Explanation: What has the Opportunity rover found on Mars? While traversing a vast empty plain in Meridiani Planum, one of Earth's yearling rolling robots found a surprise when visiting the location of its own metallic heat shield discarded last year during descent. The surprise is the rock visible on the lower left, found to be made mostly of dense metals iron and nickel. The large cone-shaped object behind it -- and the flank piece on the right -- are parts of Opportunity's jettisoned heat shield. Smaller shield debris is also visible. Scientists do not think that the basketball-sized metal "Heat Shield Rock" originated on Mars, but rather is likely an ancient metallic meteorite. In hindsight, finding a meteorite in a vast empty dust plain on Mars might be considered similar to Earth meteorites found on the vast empty ice plains of Antarctica. The finding raises speculations about the general abundance of rocks on Mars that have fallen there from outer space.
APOD: 2004 November 19 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning new color image from the Mars Express spacecraft, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
APOD: 2004 September 22 - Spirit Rover at Engineering Flats on Mars
Explanation: Is it art? Here the paintbrush was the Spirit robotic rover, the canvas was the soil on Mars, and the artists were the scientists and engineers of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. The picture created was mostly unintentional -- the MERS team was primarily instructing Spirit to investigate rocks in and around Hank's Hollow in a location called Engineering Flats on Mars. After creating the ground display with its treads, the Spirit rover was instructed to photograph the area along with itself in silhouette. Both Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are now back in contact after an expected radio blackout caused by Mars moving behind the Sun. NASA has also announced that it is extending the rovers missions for six months, so long as they keep working.
APOD: 2004 June 28 - Spirit Rover Reaches the Columbia Hills on Mars
Explanation: The Spirit robotic rover on Mars has now reached the Columbia Hills on Mars. Two of the hills are shown on approach near the beginning of June. The above true-color picture shows very nearly what a human would see from Spirit's vantage point. The red color of the rocks, hills, and even the sky is caused by pervasive rusting sand. Spirit has now traveled over 3 kilometers since it bounced down onto the red planet in January. The robotic explorer, controlled and programmed remotely from Earth, is now investigating a rock called Pot of Gold. On the other side of Mars, Spirit's twin Opportunity is now inspecting unusual rocks inside a pit dubbed Endurance crater.
APOD: 2004 May 19 - Brain Crater on Mars
Explanation: What caused this unusual looking crater floor on Mars? Appearing at first glance to resemble the human brain, the natural phenomena that created the unusual texture on the floor of this Martian impact crater are currently under investigation. The light colored region surrounding the brain-textured region is likely sand dunes sculpted by winds. The Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft that has been orbiting Mars since 1997 took the above image. Meanwhile, down on the surface, robots Spirit and Opportunity continue to roll, inspecting landscape, rocks, and soil for clues to the ancient watery past of the red planet. Humorously, this brain-terrain on Mars spans about a kilometer, making it just about the right size to fit inside the rock formation once dubbed the Face on Mars.
APOD: 2004 April 1 - April Fools Day More Intense On Mars
Explanation: Today, April 1st, astrophysicists have announced a surprising discovery - April Fools Day is more intense on Mars! Though the discovery is contrary to accepted theories of April Fools Day, researchers note that there are several likely causes for the severe martian April Fools phenomenon. For starters, gravity, the force that opposes comedy throughout the universe, is only about 3/8ths as strong on Mars' surface as it is on planet Earth. Also, a martian day, called a sol, lasts nearly 40 minutes longer than an earth day. And furthermore ... well, as soon as they think of some more reasons, they've promised to tell us. Happy April Fools day from the editors at APOD! Editors note: Mars rover Spirit recorded this image looking out toward the eastern horizon and the Columbia Hills over 2 kilometers in the distance. Its journey across this rocky martian terrain could take from 60 to 90 sols.
APOD: 2004 February 10 - Unusual Spherules on Mars
Explanation: What are those unusual spherules on Mars? The Mars Opportunity rover has now photographed several unusual nodules on Mars that have a nearly spherical shape. Many times these spherules are embedded in larger rock outcroppings but appear grayer. Pictured in the inset is one such spherule embedded in a rock dubbed Stone Mountain, visible to the Opportunity rover now rolling inside a small crater on Meridiani Planum. Opportunity was directed to go right up to Stone Mountain to get a better look. The inset picture spans only 3 centimeters across, revealing the rock to be named more for shape than actual size. Scientists are currently debating the origin of the spherules. One leading hypothesis holds that the beads were once-molten rock that froze in mid-air after an impact or a volcanic eruption. Another hypothesis holds that the spherules are concretions, hard rock that slowly accumulates around a central core. Opportunity will work to solve this mystery and others over the next few days.
APOD: 2004 January 29 - Valles Marineris Perspective from Mars Express
Explanation: Europe's Mars Express satellite has started returning detailed color images of the red planet. The first of the current armada to arrive at Mars, the orbiting satellite will photograph the entire Martian surface to a resolution of 10 meters or higher, map the mineral composition to 100 meter resolution, and investigate the global circulation of the atmosphere. Pictured above is a 3D perspective of the first image released from this satellite -- a stunning computer reconstruction of part of the Valles Marineris region, a canyon nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Mars. In reality, Valles Marineris is four times longer and five times deeper than its Arizona counterpart. The above image shows a portion of Valles Marineris roughly 65 kilometers across, detailing many ridges and valleys. Mars Express is scheduled to continue to send back images for at least a full Martian year.
APOD: 2004 January 24 - Valles Marineris from Mars Express
Explanation: Looking down from orbit on January 14, ESA's Mars Express spacecraft scanned a 1700 by 65 kilometer swath across Valles Marineris - the Grand Canyon of Mars - with its remarkable High Resolution Stereo Camera. This spectacular picture reconstructs part of the scanned region from the stereo colour image data recording the rugged terrain with a resolution of 12 metres per pixel. Joining Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, Mars Express has been orbiting the red planet since December 25th, returning scientific data, acting as a communications relay, and even making coordinated atmospheric observations with NASA's Spirit rover on the surface. The Beagle 2 lander was released from Mars Express making a landing attempt also on December 25th, but no signal has been received so far.
APOD: 2004 January 21 - Adirondack Rock on Mars
Explanation: Is this a great pyramid on Mars? Actually, the pictured rock dubbed Adirondack has an irregular shape, is only about the size of a football, and has formed by natural processes. Still, its relatively large size and dust-free surface made it the first destination for the robotic Spirit rover currently roving Mars. Spirit, itself the size of a golf cart, will now attempt to determine the rock's composition and history by prodding it with its sophisticated mechanical arm. Spirit's arm, programmed remotely from Earth, has the capability to bend, grind, and photograph the rock in minute detail. Spirit's twin rover Opportunity is scheduled to land on the other side of Mars this coming weekend.
APOD: 2004 January 14 - A Mars Panorama from the Spirit Rover
Explanation: If you could stand on Mars -- what would you see? Scrolling right will reveal a full color 360-degree panoramic view from NASA's Spirit Rover that landed on Mars just 10 days ago. The image is a digital mosaic from the panoramic camera that shows the view in every direction. Annotated on the image are the directions and distances to various hills along the horizon. These hills are valuable for orienting Spirit since they are also visible to the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbiting high overhead. Visible in the foreground are several instruments and airbags> around Columbia Memorial Station. Spirit will attempt to roll onto the red planet in the next few days and explore interesting features.
APOD: 2003 December 18 - Express to Mars
Explanation: Hurtling toward its destination, the high resolution camera on board ESA's Mars Express spacecraft recorded this tantalizing view of the Red Planet earlier this month on December 3rd. Seen from a distance of 5.5 million kilometers, features across part of Mars' western hemisphere are bathed in sunlight. The Martian night side is also prominent from the spacecraft's perspective, a view not possible for Earthbound telescopes. Launched on an interplanetary voyage of exploration in early June, Mars Express carries with it the Beagle 2 lander, scheduled to be released from Mars Express tomorrow, December 19th. Mars Express and Beagle 2 will then continue the journey separately, but both are scheduled to reach Mars on December 25th, with Mars Express entering an elliptical orbit and Beagle 2 descending to the Martian surface. Two more invaders from Earth, NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, will arrive in January.
APOD: 2003 December 16 - Retrograde Mars
Explanation: Why would Mars appear to move backwards? Most of the time, the apparent motion of Mars in Earth's sky is in one direction, slow but steady in front of the far distant stars. About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. During the most recent such pass in August, Mars loomed particularly large and bright. Also during this time, Mars appeared to move backwards in the sky, a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Pictured above is a series of images digitally stacked so that all of the stars images coincide. Here, Mars appears to trace out a loop in the sky. At the top of the loop, Earth passed Mars and the retrograde motion was the highest. Retrograde motion can also be seen for other Solar System planets. In fact, by coincidence, the dotted line to the right of the image center is Uranus doing the same thing.
APOD: 2003 November 12 - Mars Then and Now
Explanation: Does Mars have canals? A hot debate topic of the late 1800s, several prominent astronomers including Percival Lowell not only claimed to see an extensive system of long straight canals on Mars, but used them to indicate that intelligent life exists there. The relatively close opposition of 1894 was used to make drawings like the one digitally re-scaled on the above left. The above map was originally prepared by Eugene Antoniadi and redrawn by Lowell Hess for the book Exploring Mars, by Roy A. Gallant. In more modern times, the latest Mars opposition has allowed the Hubble Space Telescope to capture a picture of similar orientation. Comparison of the two images shows that large features were impressively recorded, but that an extensive system of long and straight canals just does not exist. Satellites orbiting Mars have now shown conclusively that the red planet does indeed have surface features similar to canals, but that these are usually smaller, curved, and less extensive than that previously claimed. Real canyon systems like Noctis Labyrinthus are most likely cracks caused by surface stress.
APOD: 2003 October 24 - Mars Moons
Explanation: This year's record close approach of Mars inspired many to enjoy telescopic views of the red planet. But while Mars was so bright it was hard to miss, spotting Mars' two diminutive moons was still a good test for observers with modest sized instruments. Mars' moons were discovered in August of 1877 by Asaph Hall at the US Naval Observatory using the large 26-inch Alvan Clark refractor. Recorded on this August 22nd, innermost moon Phobos and outermost moon Deimos are seen here against the planet's glare in a digital composite image. The picture consists of of a long exposure capturing the faint, city-sized moons and overexposing the planetary disk, combined with a well exposed image of the red planet, revealing dark markings on the surface and the white south polar cap. The images were taken by astronomer Johannes Schedler using an 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at his observatory in southeastern Austria. (Editor's note: For help finding Mars' moons, just put your cursor over the image.)
APOD: 2003 September 22 - Opportunity Rockets Toward Mars
Explanation: Next stop: Mars. Two months ago, the second of two missions to Mars was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA above a Boeing Delta II rocket. The Mars Exploration Rover dubbed Opportunity is expected to arrive at the red planet this coming January. Pictured above, an attached RocketCam (TM) captures Opportunity separating from lower booster stages and rocketing off toward Mars. Upon arriving, parachutes will deploy to slow the spacecraft and surrounding airbags will inflate. The balloon-like package will then bounce around the surface a dozen times or more before coming to a stop. The airbags will then deflate, the spacecraft will right itself, and the Opportunity rover will prepare to roll onto Mars. A first rover named Spirit was successfully launched on June 10 and will arrive at Mars a few weeks earlier. The robots Spirit and Opportunity are expected to cover as much as 40 metres per day, much more than Sojourner, their 1997 predecessor. Spirit and Opportunity will search for evidence of ancient Martian water, from which implications might be drawn about the possibility of ancient Martian life.
APOD: 2003 September 2 - Contemplating Mars
Explanation: Is that really another world? Thousands of people the world over lined up last week to see Mars through a telescope as the red planet and Earth passed unusually close together in their orbits around the Sun. Reviews of Mars were mixed, with some people disappointed that Mars still appeared somewhat blurry. Veteran sky gazers appeared somewhat surprised by the popularity of the phenomenon, as it seemed to many that Mars was not very much brighter than it frequently appears, and the event held little promise for real discovery. Most observers, though, appeared quietly pleased to take advantage of a unique opportunity and see such an uncommon sight. Many were awed by the simple enormity of being able to see the face of a completely different world with their own eyes. Pictured above, a youngster peered toward Mars last week at an East Antrim Astronomical Society star party at the Big Collin Picnic Area north of Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK.
APOD: 2003 August 28 - Mars Rising Behind Elephant Rock
Explanation: Yesterday, at about 10 am Universal Time, Mars and Earth passed closer than in nearly 60,000 years. Mars, noticeably red, remains the brightest object in the eastern sky just after sunset. The best views of Mars, however, will continue to be from the robot spacecraft currently orbiting Mars: the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey. The current pass sparked the launching of four new spacecraft toward Mars, some of which will deploy landers early next year and likely return even more spectacular views of our planetary neighbor. Pictured above, Mars was photographed rising in the southeast behind Elephant Rock in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA.
APOD: 2003 August 27 - Big Mars from Hubble
Explanation: At about 10 am Universal Time today, Mars and Earth will pass closer than in nearly 60,000 years. Mars, noticeably red, will be the brightest object in the eastern sky just after sunset. Tonight and through much of this week, many communities around the world are running a public Mars Watch 2003 campaign, where local telescopes will zoom in on the red planet. Pictured above is an image of Mars taken just last night from the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the Earth. This image is the most detailed view of Mars ever taken from Earth. Visible features include the south polar cap in white at the image bottom, circular Huygens crater just to the right of the image center, Hellas Impact Basin - the large light circular feature at the lower right, planet-wide light highlands dominated by many smaller craters and large sweeping dark areas dominated by relatively smooth lowlands.
APOD: 2003 August 26 - Earth Webcam Catches Mars Rotation
Explanation: Mars won't look this good. Tonight and over the next few days, when Mars is at its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years, you might get your best view ever of our planetary neighbor. Please, though, don't expect to see this much structure, or expect to see Mars rotate so much in so brief a period. The above 20-frame movie was created from 1000 frames of a backyard webcam that were meticulously aligned, added, and digitally sequenced. Pictured, Mars appears to rotate in a time-lapse sequence, with each frame separated by 30 minutes of real time. In reality, one full Martian rotation -- a Martian day -- is only about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. For those with access to a small telescope, here is how mars will really look.
APOD: 2003 August 19 - Mars Through a Small Telescope
Explanation: How does Mars appear through a small telescope? Viewed with the unaided eye or through a small telescope, possibly the most striking part of Mars' appearance is its red color. The color derives from rust, iron oxide, which composes perhaps 10% of the Martian soil. The oxygen that rusts the surface iron on Mars originates predominantly from carbon dioxide gas, which composes 95% of the Martian atmosphere. Mars nears its closest approach with Earth in nearly 60 millennia on August 27, the red planet continues to appear larger, brighter, and a good target for sky enthusiasts. Pictured above, Mars was captured from the Canary Islands of Spain during three days in three different orientations earlier this month. Visible through the small telescope are white polar caps of water and carbon-dioxide ice, light red areas rich in lightly colored craters, and dark red areas dominated by relatively smooth lowlands.
APOD: 2003 August 15 - Sedimentary Mars
Explanation: High-resolution imaging of an area in the Schiaparelli Basin of Mars on June 3 by the MGS Mars Orbiter camera produced this stunning example of layered formations within an old impact crater. On planet Earth, such structures would be seen in sedimentary rock -- material deposited at the bottom of ancient lakes or oceans and then subsequently weathered away to reveal the layers. With the Sun shining from the left, the central layer appears to stand above the others within the 2.3 kilometer wide crater. The crater could well have been filled with water in Mars' distant past, perhaps resting at the bottom of a lake filling the Schiaparelli impact basin. Still, such layers might also have been formed by material settling out of the windy martian atmosphere. As satellites continue to examine the martian surface from orbit, NASA's Spirit and Opportunity spacecraft will attempt to land on on Mars early next year to further explore the tantalizing history of water on the Red Planet.
APOD: 2003 August 13 - Mars Rising Behind Poodle Rock
Explanation: Have you seen Mars lately? As Earth and Mars near their closest approach in nearly 60,000 years on August 27, the red planet has begun to appear dramatically bright and show interesting details through telescopes and binoculars. Although not yet visible at sunset, Mars can be seen rising increasingly earlier in the evening. Once above the horizon, Mars is easy to spot, as it sports a distinct orange-red hue and it is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the nearby Moon, and Venus. After Earth overtakes Mars in their respective solar orbits, Mars will be visible right from sunset, although its historic brightness will then begin to fade. Pictured above, Mars was captured rising in the south east next to Poodle Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA.
APOD: 2003 July 30 - Frosty Mountains on Mars
Explanation: What causes the unusual white color on some Martian mountains? The answer can be guessed by noticing that the bright areas disappear as springtime takes hold in the south of Mars: dry ice. Dry carbon dioxide ice sublimates directly to gas from its frozen state. The frosty mountains, named Charitum Montes, have been covered with carbon dioxide ice over the Martian winter. The serene scene pictured above is not a photograph, but rather a computationally constructed digital illusion resulting from the fusion of two color images from the Mars Orbital Camera and topographic data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter. Both instruments operate from the Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The red planet continues to grow larger in terrestrial skies as Earth and Mars move closer to their recent-record closest approach on August 27.
APOD: 2003 July 28 - Launch of the Spirit Rover Toward Mars
Explanation: Next stop: Mars. Last month the first of two missions to Mars was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA above a Boeing Delta II rocket. Pictured above, solid fuel boosters are seen falling away as light from residual exhaust is reflected by the soaring rocket. The Mars Exploration Rover dubbed Spirit is expected to arrive at the red planet this coming January. Upon arriving, parachutes will deploy to slow the spacecraft and surrounding airbags will inflate. The balloon-like package will then bounce around the surface a dozen times or more before coming to a stop. The airbags will then deflate, the spacecraft will right itself, and the Spirit rover will prepare to roll onto Mars. The robotic Spirit is expected to cover as much as 40 meters per day, much more than Sojourner, its 1997 predecessor. Spirit will search for evidence of ancient Martian water, from which implications might be drawn about the possibility of ancient Martian life. A second rover named Opportunity was successfully launched on July 7 and will arrive at Mars a few weeks later.
APOD: 2003 July 24 - Mars at the Moon's Edge
Explanation: What was that bright "star" near the Moon last week? Mars of course, as the Red Planet wandered near the waning gibbous Moon early last Thursday morning, passing behind the lunar orb when viewed from some locations in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Florida. The Clay Center Observatory expedition to Bonita Springs, Florida produced this evocative picture of Mars grazing the Moon's dark edge by digitally stacking and processing a series of telescopic images of the event. With the cratered Moon in the foreground, the bright planet Mars seems alarmingly close, its global scale features and white south polar cap easily visible. Already impressive, the apparent size of the martian disk will continue to grow in the coming weeks, until, on August 27, Mars reaches its closest approach to planet Earth in over 50,000 years.
APOD: 2003 July 15 - Mars Rising Through Arch Rock
Explanation: Mars is heading for its closest encounter with Earth in over 50,000 years. Although Mars and Earth continue in their normal orbits around the Sun, about every two years Earth and Mars are on the same part of their orbit as seen from the Sun. When this happens again in late August, Mars will be almost as near to the Sun as it ever gets, while simultaneously Earth will be almost as far from the Sun as it ever gets. This means that now is a great time to launch your space probe to Mars. Alternatively, these next few months are a great time to see a bright red Mars from your backyard. Mars is so close that global features should be visible even through a small telescope. Look for Mars to rise about 11 pm and to remain the brightest red object in the sky until sunrise. Mars will rise increasingly earlier until its closest approach in late August. Mars was captured above rising through the Arch Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, USA.
APOD: 2003 July 10 - Dust Storm Over Northern Mars
Explanation: Almost on cue, as Mars nears its closest approach to planet Earth in recorded history, ominous seasonal dust storms are beginning to kick up. Observers worry that the activity may presage the development of a planet wide dust storm, frustrating attempts to view Mars in the coming months, a situation similar to the Red Planet's uncooperative behavior in 2001. In this example, recorded in mid-May by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft camera, a dust storm the size of a continent sweeps north and east (toward the upper right) across Mars' northern Acidalia Planitia. Meanwhile, interplanetary robotic explorers Mars Express/ Beagle 2, Nozomi, and the twin Mars Exploration Rovers Opportunity and Spirit, are all bound for Mars and should arrive by early January 2004.
APOD: 2003 May 2 - Five to Mars
Explanation: Come December 2003 - January 2004, an armada of five new invaders from Earth should arrive on the shores of the Red Planet -- the Japanese ( ISAS) Nozomi orbiter, the European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter carrying the Beagle 2 lander, and NASA's own two Mars Exploration Rovers. While Nozomi began its interplanetary voyage in 1998, the other spacecraft are scheduled for launch windows beginning this June. Clearly, earthdwellers remain intensely curious about Mars and the tantalizing possibility of past or present martian life, with these robotic missions focussing on investigating the planet's atmosphere and the search for water. This mosaic of over 100 Viking 1 orbiter images of Mars was recorded in 1980 and is projected to show the perspective seen from an approaching spacecraft at a distance of 2,000 kilometers. Exceptional views of Mars will be possible from earthbound telescopes in August and September.
APOD: 2003 April 22 - Springtime on Mars
Explanation: Vast canyons, towering volcanoes, sprawling fields of ice, deep craters, and high clouds can all be seen in this image of the Solar System's fourth planet: Mars. The orbiting robot Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft took the above mosaic of images as springtime dawned in Northern Mars in 2002 May. Sprawled across the image bottom is Valles Marinaris, a canyon three times the length of Earth's Grand Canyon, and four times as deep. On the left are several volcanoes including Olympus Mons, a volcano three times higher than Earth's Mt. Everest. At the top is the North Polar Cap made of thawing water and carbon-dioxide based ice. Swirling white clouds and circular impact craters are also visible around Mars. Two rovers will be launched to Mars this summer and should arrive in 2004 January.
APOD: 2003 April 6 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These Martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. In this 1978 Viking 1 orbiter image, the largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a heavily cratered asteroid-like object. About 17 miles across, Phobos really zips through the Martian sky. Actually rising above Mars' western horizon and setting in the east, it completes an orbit in less than 8 hours. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars, (about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon) that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
APOD: 2003 February 21 - Melting Snow and the Gullies of Mars
Explanation: Tantalizing images of gullies on Mars have offered striking evidence for recent flows of liquid water. But Mars is too cold and its atmosphere too thin for liquid water to exist on the surface. Still a new and compelling explanation for gullies carved by liquid water was inspired by this recently released image from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Pictured is a section of what is likely a snow covered crater in the Martian southern hemisphere. North is at the top and the scene, illuminated from the left, is about 16 kilometers wide. Patches of smooth snow pack remain along the northern crater wall, while structures resembling the famous Martian gullies appear to be emerging as the snow cover gradually disappears, and are exposed along the crater's western (left) wall. Melting snow, running underneath the snow pack and down the crater walls would be protected from the extreme surface conditions, remaining liquid and eroding the gullies over time. Could life exist in a liquid water environment beneath the Martian snow?
APOD: 2003 February 5 - Unusual Gullies and Channels on Mars
Explanation: What could have formed these unusual channels? Inside Newton Basin on Mars, numerous narrow channels run from the top down to the floor. The above picture covers a region spanning about 1500 meters across. These and other gullies have been found on Mars in recent high-resolution pictures taken by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Nevertheless, many scientists hypothesize that liquid groundwater can sometimes surface on Mars, erode gullies and channels, and pool at the bottom before freezing and evaporating. If so, life-sustaining ice and water might exist even today below the Martian surface -- water that could potentially support a human mission to Mars. Research into this exciting possibility is sure to continue!
APOD: 2002 October 24 - Gullies on Mars
Explanation: The Gullies of Mars would probably not have been sensational enough for the title of a vintage Edgar Rice Burroughs story about the Red Planet. But it would get the attention of planetary scientists today. First identified in high resolution images of Mars recorded by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, the gullies are interpreted as startling evidence that liquid water flowed across the martian surface in geologically recent times. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Still, it is thought possible that water did burst out from underground layers and remain liquid long enough to erode the gullies, while alternative explanations suggest the erosion was produced by a flowing jumble of solid and gaseous carbon dioxide. Spanning a few kilometers along the wall of an impact crater this high resolution image from Mars Global Surveyor shows typical martian gullies near the top of the crater wall giving way to sand dunes toward the crater floor. Whitish frost is visible near the top and on the dark sand dunes below. The muted colors were synthesized from wide angle image data.
APOD: 2002 October 1 - Rectangular Ridges on Mars
Explanation: What could cause rectangular ridges on Mars? As data flows in from the two spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, surface structures are seen that are not immediately understood. These structures pose puzzles that planetary geologists are eager to solve, as they might provide clues to past processes that have shaped Mars over billions of years. On the right of the above image is an unusual array of ridges first spotted in Mariner 9 data in 1972. A ridge wall runs for about 5 kilometers. Two competing progenitor theories include hardened sand dunes and once-molten rock that seeped through surface cracks and cooled. Dubbed "Inca City" for their resemblance to stone walls of an ancient Earth civilization, the new Mars Global Surveyor images now show them to be part of a larger circular pattern, indicating an origin possibly related to the impact crater. (Non-natural origin hypotheses are not invoked by conservative scientists unless clear indications exist that natural processes could not work.)
APOD: 2002 May 13 - White Rock Fingers on Mars
Explanation: What caused this unusual white rock formation on Mars? Intrigued by the possibility that they could be salt deposits left over as an ancient lakebed dried-up, detailed studies of these fingers now indicate a more mundane origin: volcanic ash. Studying the exact color of the formation indicated the volcanic origin. The light material appears to have eroded away from surrounding area, indicating a very low-density substance consistent with the ash hypothesis. The stark contrast between the rocks and the surrounding sand is compounded by the unusual darkness of the sand. The above picture was taken with the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The image spans about 10 kilometers inside a much larger crater.
APOD: 2002 March 15 - Neutron Mars
Explanation: Looking for water on Mars, researchers using detectors on board the orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft have created this false-color global map of energetic neutrons from the otherwise Red Planet. What do neutrons have to do with water? As cosmic rays from interplanetary space penetrate the thin martian atmosphere and reach the surface they interact with elements in the upper layer of soil, scattering neutrons back into space. But if the martian soil contains hydrogen, it seriously absorbs energetic scattered neutrons. Tracking variations in absorption, neutron detectors can map changes in surface hydrogen content from orbit. Hydrogen content is taken as a surrogate measure of frozen water (H20), the most likely form of hydrogen close to the martian surface. Blue shades in the above map correspond to large concentrations of hydrogen, indicating in particular that the martian south polar region has a high amount of water ice near the surface.
APOD: 2001 November 27 - Ancient Layered Rocks on Mars
Explanation: Is this a picture of Mars or Earth? Oddly enough, it is a picture of Mars. What may appear to some as a terrestrial coastline is in fact a formation of ancient layered rocks and wind-blown sand on Mars. The above-pictured region spans about three kilometers in Schiaparelli Crater. What created the layers of sediment is still a topic of research. Viable hypotheses include ancient epochs of deposit either from running water or wind-blown sand. Winds and sandstorms have smoothed and eroded the structures more recently. The "water" that appears near the bottom is actually dark colored sand. The image was taken with the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft that has now returned over 100,000 images.
APOD: 2001 November 2 - THEMIS of Mars
Explanation: Not an ancient Greek goddess, THEMIS is modern acronese for THermal EMission Imaging System. Above is this remarkable instrument's premier infrared image of Mars, from the newly orbiting Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Taken on October 30th, the sharp infrared picture covers the indicated swath of the martian southern hemisphere and shows surface temperatures in false-colors ranging from red, a warm 0 degrees Celsius, to cool purple shades of -120 degrees C. The striking, cold circular feature is Mars' south polar ice cap. Composed of frozen carbon dioxide, the ice cap is about 900 kilometers wide and shrinking during the onslaught of southern hemisphere summer. Temperatures are also seen to drop as the bottom portion of the THEMIS image sweeps beyond the terminator or shadow line, into the martian night. A thin, light blue crescent along the upper edge of the planet is the martian atmosphere. The THEMIS image data was recorded as a test of the camera system from an altitude of about 22,000 kilometers .
APOD: 2001 October 25 - Odyssey at Mars
Explanation: After an interplanetary journey lasting 200 days, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has entered orbit around the Red Planet. This latest success is welcome as in the past, Mars has often seemed a difficult planet to visit. Beginning with the first Soviet attempts in 1960, around 30 missions have tried while only 10 or so have gone without serious mishap. Now that Mars Odyssey has arrived, its immediate future will involve aerobraking. Cautiously dipping into the martian atmosphere, the spacecraft will gradually adjust its present wide and elliptical 20-hour orbit to a circular 2-hour orbit only 400 kilometers above the planet's surface. Then, its instruments and cameras will focus on exploring the climate and geologic history of Mars, including the search for water and evidence of life-sustaining environments. In the artist's conception above, the spacecraft with wing-like solar panels is imagined firing its rocket engine for Mars orbit insertion over terrain seen in natural and false-color.
APOD: 2001 October 17 - Mars Engulfed
Explanation: For months now, Mars has been engulfed by a great dust storm, the biggest seen raging across the Red Planet in decades. As a result, these two Hubble Space Telescope storm watch images from late June and early September offer dramatically contrasting views of the martian surface. At left, the onset of smaller "seed" storms can be seen near the Hellas basin (lower right edge of Mars) and the northern polar cap. A similar surface view at right, taken over two months later, shows the fully developed extent of the obscuring global dust storm. The storm is reported to be waning, but planet-wide effects such as the warming of the upper martian atmosphere and cooling of the surface are still being monitored daily by instruments on board the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The present condition of the martian atmosphere is also important to the aerobraking Mars Odyssey spacecraft, scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet next week.
APOD: 2001 September 18 - Surrounded by Mars
Explanation: Just after landing on Mars in 1997, the robotic Mars Pathfinder main station took a quick first look around. This insurance panorama was taken even before the Sagan Memorial Station camera was raised to its two-meter-high perch. The full view is best seen by slowly scrolling to the right. The unique perspective captures many Mars Pathfinder instruments in the close foreground including a screen for judging sky illumination, communications antennae, solar panels, and two ramps leading down to the surface for the robot probe Sojourner. After taking the ramp on the right, Sojourner can be seen on the Martian surface. Visible on the surface are numerous rocks and hills that came to be better studied. The Mars Pathfinder mission went on to return 16,000 images and data that resulted in many discoveries, including evidence for warmer and wetter conditions on Mars in the past. After nearly three spectacular months exploring the surface, Mars Pathfinder dropped out of communication, likely the result of depleted battery power.
APOD: 2001 August 18 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These Martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. In this 1978 Viking 1 orbiter image, the largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a heavily cratered asteroid-like object. About 17 miles across, Phobos really zips through the Martian sky. Actually rising above Mars' western horizon and setting in the east, it completes an orbit in less than 8 hours. But Phobos is doomed. Phobos orbits so close to Mars, (about 3,600 miles above the surface compared to 250,000 miles for our Moon) that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
APOD: 2001 July 18 - Mars from Earth
Explanation: Last month, Mars and Earth were right next to each other in their orbits. Formally called opposition, the event was highlighted by a very bright Mars for skywatchers and a good photo opportunity for the Hubble Space Telescope. Above, Hubble snapped the highest resolution picture of Mars ever obtained from the Earth. Visible on Mars are ice caps over the poles in white, regions covered with sand and gravel in dark brown and orange, and large dust storms in light orange. A particularly large dust storm can be seen on the lower right pouring out of Hellas Basin. This storm has since erupted into a huge planet wide storm that continues even today. Pictures like these allow planetary astronomers to continue to compare the weather patterns of Mars and Earth. When Mars next reaches opposition in 2003, its elliptical orbit will cause it to be even 20 percent closer.
APOD: 2001 June 28 - The Topography of Mars
Explanation: Mars has its ups and downs. Visible on the above interactive topographic map of the surface of Mars are giant volcanoes, deep valleys, impact craters, and terrain considered unusual and even mysterious. Particularly notable are the volcanoes of the Tharsis province, visible on the left in (false-color) red and white, which are taller than any mountains on Earth. Just to the left of center is Valles Marineris, a canyon much longer and deeper than Earth's Grand Canyon. On the right in blue is the Hellas Planitia, a basin over 2000 kilometers wide that was likely created by a collision with an asteroid. Mars has many smooth lowlands in the north, and many rough highlands in the south. This map was created by the Mars Orbital Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on board the robot Mars Global Surveyor currently orbiting Mars. MOLA measures heights on Mars by precisely determining the time it takes for a low power laser beam to bounce off the surface. Zoom in by clicking anywhere on the above map.
APOD: 2001 June 26 - All of Mars
Explanation: From pole to pole, from east to west, this is all of Mars. The above picture was digitally reconstructed from over 200 million laser altimeter measurements taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft currently orbiting Mars. The image strips Mars of its clouds and dust, and renders the whole surface visible simultaneously in its true daytime color. Particularly notable are the volcanoes of the Tharsis province, visible on the left, which are taller than any mountains on Earth. Just to the left of center is Valles Marineris, a canyon much longer and deeper Earth's Grand Canyon. On the right, south of the center, is the Hellas Planitia, a basin over 2000 kilometers wide that was likely created by a collision with an asteroid. Mars has many smooth lowlands in the north, and many rough highlands in the south. Mars has just passed its closest approach to Earth since 1988 and can be seen shining brightly in the evening sky.
APOD: 2001 April 9 - Mars Odyssey Lifts Off for Mars
Explanation: Next stop: Mars. On Saturday the 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida on a path to enter orbit around Mars in late October. Pictured above, a Delta II rocket lifted the robot spacecraft, located in the nose cone, off the launch pad, while a camera mounted on the side of the rocket took the inset picture. The Odyssey orbiter will map the locations of chemical elements and minerals, look for evidence of water, and measure the Martian radiation environment. These data will help NASA better determine whether life ever arose on Mars, better understand the climate and geology or Mars, and better plan for future human exploration. The spacecraft's name is a tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey, an epic fictional story of future space exploration written by Arthur C. Clarke.
APOD: 2001 March 27 - Swiss Cheese Like Landscape on Mars
Explanation: Why do parts of the south pole of Mars look like swiss cheese? This little-understood landscape features flat-topped mesas nearly 4 meters high and circular indentations over 100 meters across. Since this swiss-cheese topography is unique to the polar cap covering southern Mars, exogeologists speculate that mesa composition might be high in frozen carbon dioxide (dry ice). Additionally, dry ice might have had a role in this strange landscape's creation. In the above picture, the Martian surface is illuminated by sunlight from the upper right. The above picture was taken in August 1999 by the robot Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
APOD: 2001 February 26 - Sand Dunes on Mars
Explanation: Sand dunes on Mars can appear exotic. The dark dunes above might be compared to shark's teeth or chocolate confections. In reality, they arise from the complex relationship between the sandy surface and high winds on Mars. These particular dunes are located in Proctor Crater, a 170 kilometer wide crater first seen to house sand dunes by Mariner 9 more than 25 years ago. The above picture was taken by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), a robot spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars. MGS has recently completed a primary goal of taking and transmitting detailed survey images of the red planet over an entire Martian year (669 Earth days). MGS will now be deployed to study particularly interesting regions of Mars in more detail.
APOD: 2000 December 5 - Layered Mars: An Ancient Water World
Explanation: Pictured above, layers upon layers stretch across the floor of West Candor Chasma within the immense martian Valles Marineris. Covering an area 1.5 by 2.9 kilometers, the full image from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft shows over 100 individual beds. Each strikingly uniform layer is smooth, hard enough to form steep edges, and is 10 to 11 meters thick. In a press conference yesterday scientists Michael Malin and Ken Edgett presented this and other new images which show that the layered patterns exist at widespread locations near the martian equator. Their results indicate that some of the layered regions may be 3.5 billion years old. On planet Earth, layered patterns like these are formed from sediment deposited over time by large bodies of water. Likewise, the layered beds on Mars may be sedimentary rock formed in ancient lakes and seas. The researchers caution, however, that other uniquely martian processes may be responsible for the layering. Did life arise on ancient Mars? Because of their possible association with water, a prime location for future searches for fossil remains of martian life would be within these layers of Mars.
APOD: 2000 September 12 - Slightly Above Mars Pathfinder
Explanation: If you could have hovered above the Pathfinder mission to Mars in 1997, this is what you might have seen. Directly below you is the control tower of Sagan Memorial Station. Three dark solar arrays extend out to collect valuable energy, surrounded by light-colored deflated airbags that protected Pathfinder's instruments from directly colliding with the rocky Martian surface. The left solar panel has ramps down which Pathfinder's rolling robot Sojourner started its adventure to nearby rocks. Sojourner itself is visible inspecting a rock nicknamed Yogi at 11 o'clock. Rocks cover the Martian surface, with Twin Peaks visible on the horizon at 9 0'clock. The distant sky is mostly orange. This image is a recently released digital combination of panoramic pictures taken by Pathfinder on Mars and a picture of a Lander scale model back on Earth. The Mars Pathfinder Mission was able to collect data for three months, sending back information that has indicated a wet distant past for Mars.
APOD: 2000 June 26 - Newton Crater: Evidence for Recent Water on Mars
Explanation: What could have formed these unusual channels? Inside a small crater that lies inside large Newton Crater on Mars, numerous narrow channels run from the top down to the crater floor. The above picture covers a region spanning about 3000 meters across. These and other gullies have been found on Mars in recent high-resolution pictures taken by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Nevertheless, many scientists now hypothesize that liquid water did burst out here from underground Mars, eroded the gullies, and pooled at the bottom as it froze and evaporated. If so, life-sustaining ice and water might exist even today below the Martian surface -- water that could potentially support a human mission to Mars. Research into this exciting possibility is sure to continue!
APOD: 2000 May 29 - Olympus Mons Volcano on Mars
Explanation: Scroll right to virtually climb the largest volcano in the Solar System. Olympus Mons on Mars measures three times higher than Earth's highest mountain, and has a volume over fifty times greater than Earth's largest volcano. The caldera at the top is over 70 kilometers wide. The low gravity and relatively static surface crust on Mars allows structures as large as Olympus Mons to form. Surrounding the volcano is a cliff that ranges up to 10 kilometers high. This black & white image is one of over 20,000 just-released images taken by the robot spacecraft Mars Global Surveyor that continues to orbit Mars.
APOD: 2000 March 23 - Inside Mars
Explanation: What's inside Mars? From orbit, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft has recorded detailed images of the red planet since July 1997. Still, its cameras can not look beneath the surface. But minute changes in the spacecraft's orbital velocity are produced by variations in the planet's gravitational field, and these changes are related to interior density fluctuations. When the subtle orbital changes were measured using MGS radio science experiments and combined with the accurate Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter topographical data, researchers were able to produce a map of the thickness of the martian crust. In this color cut-away diagram of the results, red colors correspond to thin and blue to thick areas of the crust which rides above the martian mantle. From the global map, the crust is seen to range from about 20 to 50 miles thick and shows a dramatic difference between the generally thinner northern hemisphere to thicker southern hemisphere crust. For the newly formed planet, the thin crust would have promoted rapid cooling and may have given rise to a large northern ocean on early Mars.
APOD: December 4, 1999 - Mars Polar Lander Target Ellipse
Explanation: South is up in this recent composite color picture of Mars Polar Lander's target region near the Martian South Pole taken on November 28. Imaged by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor's wide angle camera, the area covered is 105 kilometers across with the expected landing ellipse superposed. It is late spring in Mars' southern hemisphere and white patches near the top are what remains of the area's winter frost while dark areas are likely sand and fields of sand dunes. The Mars Polar Lander spacecraft reached the Red Planet yesterday at 20:00 UTC and earthbound controllers are still trying to establish contact with the lander during the available communication windows. From orbit, the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft will try to contact the two basketball-sized microprobes jettisoned during the lander's descent.
APOD: December 3, 1999 - Southern Mars
Explanation: This topographical map of the southern hemisphere of Mars was generated using data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). Flying on the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, MOLA has bounced a laser beam off the Martian surface over 200,000,000 times producing a wealth of detailed elevation measurements. The MOLA measurements have been color-coded so, for example, the white areas at left are the highest elevations in the southern Tharsis region and not snow-covered peaks. These areas are more than 6 kilometers above the hypothetical Martian "sea-level". Likewise, deep blues and purples are not water oceans but correspond to the lowest elevations (more than 4 kilometers below "sea-level"), like those found within the giant Hellas impact basin at right. In fact, liquid water is not present on Mars' surface today, but may have been in the past. NASA's Mars Polar Lander spacecraft is scheduled to embark on an investigation of the role of water in the climate history of the Red Planet. The lander is targeted to touch down within the long, thin ellipse indicated here just below the Martian South Pole today at 20:00 UTC.
APOD: August 16, 1999 - Mars Weather Watch
Explanation: Mars may be a cold, dry planet but its weather is dynamic. On June 30, wide angle cameras on board the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft watched the development of this large scale storm system above Mars' north polar area. These frames were recorded on successive mapping orbits at intervals of about 2 hours, with the white north polar cap near the center of each. High winds seem to mix the brownish dust clouds and white water-ice clouds as the curling storm front churns over the extreme northern martain landscape. The MGS cameras have watched similar storms in this region during the months of July and August revealing surprisingly complex weather. Mars Climate Orbiter will join the MGS spacecraft in martian orbit in late September, and in December Mars Polar Lander is scheduled to touch down near the Red Planet's south pole.
APOD: July 5, 1999 - Four Faces of Mars
Explanation: As Mars rotates, most of its surface becomes visible. During Earth's recent pass between Mars and the Sun, the Hubble Space Telescope was able to capture the most detailed time-lapse pictures ever from the Earth. Dark and light sand and gravel create an unusual blotted appearance for the red planet. Winds cause sand-tinted features on the Martian surface to shift over time. Visible in the above pictures are the north polar cap, made of water ice and dry ice, clouds including an unusual cyclone, and huge volcanoes leftover from ancient times. The Mars Global Surveyor satellite orbiting Mars continues to scan the surface for good places to land future robot explorers.
APOD: June 2, 1999 - Thermal Mars
Explanation: It's 2 AM on Mars and surface temperatures range from -65C to -120C, as measured by the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) onboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. TES data used to make this detailed temperature map were acquired while passing over the night side of the Red Planet during 500 mapping orbits of Mars. With the warmest temperatures shown in white, progressing through red, yellow, and green colors to the coldest temperatures in blue, the map reveals the northern hemisphere during summer while the south experiences the cold martian winter. Near Mars' equator, the variations in nighttime temperatures are related to surface materials. Cold blue areas are covered with fine dust particles and the warmer regions are covered with coarser sand and rocks.
APOD: May 28, 1999 - Topographical Mars
Explanation: Contrasting colors trace changing elevations in this new high-resolution topographic map of Mars. Just released, the data were gathered in 1998 and 1999 by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) onboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. The martian topography is seen to range over 19 miles between the highest volcanic peaks (white) and the lowest regions (purple). Along with the striking difference between the Red Planet's low northern hemisphere (top) and high southern regions, one of the most noticeable features on the map is the large blue-purple southern depression corresponding to the Hellas basin. Likely the result of an asteroid impact, Mars' deepest basin is about 1300 miles across making it one of the largest impact features in the Solar System. Explorations of MOLA's rich topographic database are expected to produce insights into water flows and the geologic history of Mars.
APOD: May 4, 1999 - Magnetic Mars
Explanation: Mapping Mars from orbit, instruments on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft have recently revealed banded magnetic field patterns - a startling and unanticipated suggestion that the Red Planet was more Earth-like in its distant past. The red and blue regions within the MGS orbital tracks across this portion of southern Mars indicate adjacent areas of crust where magnetic fields point in opposite directions. The bands seem to run east-west and are about 100 miles wide and 600 miles long. Such patterns are known to be produced on Earth by plate tectonics. As the crustal plates spread apart along the mid-ocean ridges, they carry a progressive banded record of Earth's changing magnetic field. The similar patterns on Mars are seen as evidence that it too once had moving crustal plates and a changing magnetic field, although both processes - still active on the larger planet Earth - are thought to have long since died away. These high resolution measurements of martian magnetism were made possible by the revised, close aerobraking orbits of the MGS spacecraft and not originally planned.
APOD: April 28, 1999 - A Sundial for Mars
Explanation: When Mars Surveyor arrives at Mars in 2002, it will carry a sundial. Even though batteries and a solar array will power the Mars Surveyor Lander, the sundial has been included to allow a prominent public display of time. The sundial idea was the brainchild of Bill Nye the Science Guy, who noticed that a post originally used for camera calibration could be redesigned. Millennia ago, sundials were state-of-the-art timekeepers for humans on Earth. Since the Sun casts similar shadows on Mars and Earth, accurate calibration of the shadow placement on the Martian Sundial will tell a curious inspector of returned images both the time of day and the season.
APOD: March 19, 1999 - Mapping Mars
Explanation: This month, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft began its primary mission to the red planet. Orbiting about once every two hours at an altitude of over 200 miles, instruments onboard MGS now regularly explore the Martian surface and atmosphere. This MGS polar mapping orbit was set up to achieve a favorable "afternoon" sun-angle for imaging as the spacecraft crosses over the day side of the planet. Mars' rotation will allow complete coverage of the surface roughly once every week with mapping operations planned for one Martian year (687 Earth days). These two opposite hemisphere views of Mars were pieced together from MGS wide-angle camera scans made in early March (blue and red lines mark the scan edges). Water-ice clouds can be seen hovering over the surface while the north polar cap is visible at the top of each image.
APOD: March 3, 1999 - Infrared Mars
Explanation: Was Mars wetter and more Earth-like in its distant past? This false-color composite image of Mars is part of the mounting evidence that liquid water once did play a significant role in Martian surface geology. Constructed from infrared imaging data obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope in July 1997, the north polar cap is near the top of the picture and the large reddish region indicates potential water-bearing mineral deposits. Mars Pathfinder landed at the southern edge of this area, known as the Mare Acidalium, also finding evidence of water-worn conglomerate rocks. Large scale surface features in this region appear to have been sculpted by massive flooding in the early history of Mars.
APOD: December 16, 1998 - 3-D Mars North Pole
Explanation: This dramatic premier three-dimensional visualization of Mars' north pole is based on elevation measurements made by an orbiting laser. During the Spring and Summer of 1998 the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) flashed laser pulses toward the Martian surface from the Global Surveyor spacecraft and recorded the time it took to detect the reflection. This timing data has now been translated to a detailed topographic map of Mars' north polar terrain. The map indicates that the ice cap is is about 1,200 kilometers across, a maximum of 3 kilometers thick, and cut by canyons and troughs up to 1 kilometer deep. The measurements also indicate that the cap is composed primarily of water ice with a total volume of only about four percent of planet Earth's Antarctic ice sheet. In all it represents at most a tenth of the amount of water some scientists believe once existed on ancient Mars. Where did all the water go?
APOD: September 24, 1998 - The North Pole Of Mars
Explanation: The North Pole of Mars is capped by layers likely consisting of ice and dust deposited over millions of years. Imaged on September 12 - early Spring for Northern Mars - by the Mars Global Surveyor's camera, this synthesized wide-angle color view shows the rippled, eroded polar terrain covered with pinkish seasonal carbon dioxide frost. Dark areas bordering the polar cap are fields of sand dunes. This is the last picture scheduled to be taken by Surveyor's camera until it resumes operation in late March 1999. Over the past year of operation, the camera has taken about 2,000 pictures of Mars. Meanwhile, the spacecraft will begin its second round of aerobraking to achieve a circularized martian mapping orbit.
APOD: August 14, 1998 - The Dunes Of Mars
Explanation: The North Pole of Mars is ringed by a "sea of sand dunes". For Mars' Northern Hemisphere, Spring began in mid July and increased sunlight is now shrinking the polar cap revealing the wind-swept dunes to the cameras onboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. North is up in this recently released close-up which covers a region about 1.2 miles across at 77 degrees Northern Martian Latitude. These dunes have been formed by winds generally blowing from the Southwest and are still covered with scattered white patches of carbon dioxide frost. Near the end of January 1999 Summer will begin and offer even clearer views of Northern dunes of Mars.
APOD: July 30, 1998 - Volcanos on Mars: Elysium Region
Explanation: This "synthetic color" image swath of the Elysium Volcanic Region of Mars was recorded by Mars Global Surveyor's wide angle camera on July 2. North is up and the sun illuminates the scene from the lower right. Bright clouds hover near the northern most dome-shaped volcano Hecates Tholus. The shield volcano Elysium Mons lies about 250 miles south near the image center, and farther south lies another dome-shaped volcano, Albor Tholus, with a broad summit basin or caldera. Even though Mars is just half the size of planet Earth, it is known for its volcanos - the largest of which dwarf their terrestrial counterparts.
APOD: June 19, 1998 - Good Morning Mars
Explanation: Looking down on the Northern Hemisphere of Mars on June 1, the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft's wide angle camera recorded this morning image of the red planet. Mars Global Surveyor's orbit is now oriented to view the planet's surface during the morning hours and the night/day shadow boundary or terminator arcs across the left side of the picture. Two large volcanos, Olympus Mons (left of center) and Ascraeus Mons (lower right) peer upward through seasonal haze and water-ice clouds of the Northern Martian Winter. The color image was synthesized from red and blue band pictures and only approximates a "true color" picture of Mars.
APOD: June 8, 1998 - A Mars Glint
Explanation: If aligned just right, even a planet can produce a glint. The above combined pictures of Mars make the red planet appear unusually elongated - Mars is really almost spherical. However, these pictures were taken when the Sun was nearly directly behind the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft. This created a view for MGS where every part of Mars that was visible was also illuminated by the Sun. From this vantage point, though, sunlight reflects off the Martian surface and atmosphere producing a bright spot in the center - a glint. The brightness, color, and extent of the glint carry valuable information about the composition and physical properties of Mars.
APOD: May 31, 1998 - Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars
Explanation: Phobos is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These Martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. In this 1977 Viking orbiter image, the largest moon, Phobos, is seen to be a heavily cratered asteroid-like object. It is about 17 miles across and zips through the Martian sky completing an orbit in less than 8 hours. Phobos orbits so close to Mars, (about 3,600 miles above the surface compared to 250,000 miles for our Moon) that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it should crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
APOD: April 30, 1998 - Mars: Big Crater in Stereo
Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this stereo picture of "Big Crater" on Mars! (Pieces of red and blue or green clear plastic will do. Your right eye should look through the red piece.) The stereo perspective was created by combining images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft taken on two different orbits, each with a slightly different viewing angle. At just under a mile in diameter, Big Crater is not all that big but it is an important landmark in the vicinity of the Mars Pathfinder landing site on an ancient flood plain in Ares Vallis. Identifying corresponding smaller scale features in Pathfinder and Surveyor images will help to precisely locate the lander. Meanwhile, the line of sight between the Earth and Mars is approaching the Sun. During this period, known as solar conjunction, communicating with Mars Global Surveyor will be difficult.
APOD: April 16, 1998 - Mars: Cydonia Close Up
Explanation: The Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft has returned another close-up of the Cydonia region on Mars. Orbiting over clear Martian skies at a range of about 200 miles, the Mars Orbiter Camera looked down on features known as the "City" on Mars and produced a high resolution image covering a swath around 1.5 by 15 miles at a pixel size of about 8.2 feet. This cropped portion of the processed image shows an area approximately 1.5 miles wide. Heavily weathered hills and pocked surfaces suggest the erosion of layers of the ancient Martian crust.
APOD: March 17, 1998 - Clouds Over Tharsis on Mars
Explanation: When and where do clouds form on Mars? The Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft currently orbiting Mars is finding out. Photographs released last week showed clouds forming above Tharsis, a huge bulge on Mars about 4000 kilometers across and 7 kilometers high containing several large volcanoes. These clouds temporarily disappeared as a large dust storm emerged from the South, the first developing dust storm to be tracked by an orbiting spacecraft. Mars Global Surveyor continues to aerobrake during on its ongoing mission to survey the planet Mars.
APOD: March 9, 1998 - Yogi Rock on Mars
Explanation: Yogi is possibly the best photographed rock on Mars. By combining many pictures taken during the Mars Pathfinder Mission last year, scientists were able to create a super-resolution, digitally enhanced image that better allows them to study Yogi's surface and more accurately determine how Yogi was formed. The smoothness of some Martian rocks suggests previous interactions with water, implying that Mars was both warmer and wetter in the past.
APOD: February 12, 1998 - In A Grand Canyon On Mars
Explanation: In a grand canyon on Mars, steep slopes fall away from a smooth plateau revealing striking layered rock formations. The canyon is part of the Valles Marineris, a 2,500 mile long system of canyons cutting across the Martian equator. This view, recorded on January 1 by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor shows a small portion of Valles Marineris in amazing detail. The image is about 6 miles wide and high resolution versions show features as small as 20 feet across. What processes caused the layering? In the Grand Canyon on planet Earth, sedimentary processes have resulted in spectacular rock layers. But similar layers of rock in canyons of the Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanoes. Regardless of the origin of layering on Mars, its extent suggests that early Mars was geologically active and complex.
APOD: February 10, 1998 - All of Mars
Explanation: Mars Global Surveyor is photographing Mars. The robot spacecraft arrived last September and continues to use solar panel aerobraking to help maneuver it to a better orbit to survey all of Mars The above image is a reconstruction of several photographs digitally combined to simulate a single vantage point 2700 kilometers above the Martian surface. The images were taken by the Mars Orbital Camera in wide angle mode in late December 1997. Visible features include the Valles Marineris canyon across the top, and the South Polar Cap of frozen carbon dioxide at the bottom. Many finer features that would normally be visible are hidden by dust remaining from a planet-wide storm that subsided only three weeks before these images were recorded.
APOD: October 31, 1997 - Haunting Mars
Explanation: This Halloween, the news about Mars is good news - Mars Global Surveyor will resume aerobraking into a mapping orbit around the haunting red planet. Wide angle cameras onboard the spacecraft recently recorded this shadowy image of Olympus Mons, the Solar System's largest volcano, from an altitude of over 100 miles. The summit depression or caldera of Olympus Mons is about 40 miles across and 15 miles above the Martian surface. On Halloween Night in 1938, Mars also made the news when Orson Welles' radio theatre adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" - a fictional account of invaders from Mars - was dramatized as a live news report. The performance was so convincing it tricked some listeners, but most who heard the broadcast felt it was a treat. Have a happy and safe Halloween!
APOD: October 13, 1997 - Ice Clouds over Mars
Explanation: Mars has clouds too. The above true color image taken in August by Mars Pathfinder shows clouds of ice high in the Martian atmosphere. Unlike Earth's atmosphere which is composed predominantly of nitrogen and oxygen, Mars' atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, a trace amount of water does freeze into visible clouds at night, which become particularly apparent during the day by reflection of sunlight. Contact was lost with Mars Pathfinder last Sunday but re-established later in the week.
APOD: October 6, 1997 - Surveyor At Mars
Explanation: Mars Global Surveyor achieved Martian orbit on September 11 and began aerobraking into its final mapping orbit, a process that will take until March next year. Anticipating the labors ahead, Mars Orbital Camera operators have begun acquiring test images. This dramatic detail of a recent image shows a 10 mile wide swath of a highland valley, part of the Nirgal Vallis system. The original image was recorded from an altitude of 250 miles at a resolution of about 30 feet per pixel and has been rotated to represent the camera's perspective view. Were these valleys formed by flowing water or did collapse and erosion caused by ground water produced the channel? What other processes were important? Time will tell. From its planned mapping orbit, with four times better resolution, Mars Global Surveyor's images should provide answers to these and other questions about Mars.
APOD: September 15, 1997 - Olympus Mons on Mars: The Largest Volcano
Explanation: The largest volcano in the Solar System is on Mars. Olympus Mons rises 24 kilometers high and measures 550 km across. By comparison, Earth's largest volcano, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, rises 9 km high and measures 120 km across. Such large volcanoes can exist on Mars because of the low gravity and lack of surface tectonic motion. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano, built by fluid lava. Over the next three years, Mars Global Surveyor, which arrived at Mars last week, will photograph the planet at such high resolution that objects only 100 meters across will be visible. The above image was taken by Mariner 9, which orbited and photographed Mars during 1971 and 1972.
APOD: June 27, 1997 - Mars: Just The Facts
Explanation: Mars, the freeze-dried planet, orbits 137 million miles from the Sun or at about 1.5 times the Earth-Sun distance. It has two diminutive moons, towering extinct volcanos, an immense canyon system, a thin atmosphere chiefly composed of carbon dioxide (CO2), a frigid average surface temperature of -63 degrees Celsius, and permanent frozen CO2 polar caps which contain some water ice. Mars' surface presently lacks liquid water and has a reddish color because of an abundance of oxidized iron compounds (rust). A small terrestrial planet, fourth from the Sun, Mars has only about 3/8 the surface gravity of Earth. So for example, if you tip the scale at a hefty 200 pounds on Earth you'd be a 75 pound featherweight on Mars. The low martian gravity will be good for NASA's Mars Pathfinder spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars next Friday, July 4th. Using rockets, parachutes, and airbags, Mars Pathfinder will be the first spacecraft to touchdown on the planet since the Viking landers in 1976. Pathfinder is also scheduled to begin the first ever mobile surface exploration by releasing the robot rover, "Mars Sojourner".
APOD: May 28, 1997 - Mars: Just The Fiction
Explanation: For centuries, astronomers have observed Mars, patiently compiling many facts and theories. Like a distant mirror of Earth dwellers' hopes and fears for the future, Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, has inspired profound works of fiction as well. Classics of the science fiction genre with visions of Earth's alluring planetary neighbor include H.G. Wells' terrifying "War of the Worlds", Edgar Rice Buroughs' John Carter adventure series (Thuvia, Maid of Mars, The Gods of Mars, A Princess of Mars, The Warlord of Mars), Robert Heinlein's youthful "Podkayne of Mars", and Ray Bradbury's reflective and philosophical "The Martian Chronicles". Through the years scientific theories about Mars have been disproven, but the sense of wonder and adventure embodied in these works of fiction remain with us. As two spacecraft from Earth now draw close to the red planet- in dreams, desires, and a quest for knowledge - we are once again bound for Mars.
APOD: March 24, 1997 - The Weather on Mars
Explanation: Would Mars be a nice place to visit? Sometimes. Much of Mars undergoes severe changes in climate during its orbit around the Sun, ranging from extreme cold to temperatures enjoyable by humans. But Mars is usually a nice place to visit for hardy spacecraft, and in fact the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions are currently headed for the "Red Planet." In preparation for the scheduled Mars Pathfinder landing on July 4th, 1997, the Earth-Orbiting Hubble Space Telescope recently took the above high resolution photograph. The picture shows the onset of Martian summer (northern hemisphere) when, apparently, the northern polar cap recedes to uncover dark sand dunes.
APOD: August 7, 1996 - Early Microscopic Life on Mars?
Explanation: Today a team of NASA and Stanford scientists announced the discovery of strong circumstantial evidence that microscopic life once existed on Mars. Dr. David McKay, Dr. Everett Gibson, and Kathie Thomas-Keprta of Lockheed-Martin, all from (NASA /JSC), and Dr. Richard Zare (Stanford) have led a team that has found chemical evidence for past life on Mars - including what they interpret as possible microscopic fossil remains (tube-like structures pictured above) - in a meteorite thought to have originated on Mars. A small fraction of the many meteorites that fall to Earth from space have composition similar to the Martian surface. Many scientists believe that these meteorites are indeed Martian rocks that have been catapulted into space during a catastrophic event on Mars, such as an asteroid impact. The escaped rocks would then circle the inner Solar System, some of them falling to Earth. The meteorite containing the evidence landed on Earth 13,000 years ago, but may indicate a life-form that existed on Mars billions of years ago. The team's findings will be published in the August 16 issue of Science Magazine. Even skeptical scientists look forward to future research confirming or refuting these exciting claims.
APOD: July 21, 1995 - The Search for Life on Mars
Explanation: Although images of Mars taken from space revealed the planet to have a barren and cratered surface, scientists did not give up the search for martian life. In 1976 NASA's Viking project succeeded in landing two robot probes on the surface of Mars. These landers were able to carry out sophisticated chemical experiments to look for signs of microscopic life in the martian soil. However, the experiments failed to produce any convincing evidence for life on Mars. Cameras onboard the Viking Landers also returned spectacular photos of the rocky martian landscape, like the one above, which showed no sign of martian animal or plant life.
APOD: July 20, 1995 - The Grand Canyon of Mars
Explanation: The Mariner Valley, also known as the Valles Marineris canyon system, appears in this mosaic of images from NASA's Viking spacecraft as a huge gouge across the red planet. This "Grand Canyon" of Mars is about 2500 miles long and up to 4 miles deep. By comparison, the Earth's Grand Canyon is less than 500 miles long and 1 mile deep.
APOD: July 19, 1995 - The Mountains of Mars
Explanation: Volcanic activity on Mars has produced towering mountains. The largest one, Olympus Mons, is pictured here in this Viking Orbiter image. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano nearly 15 miles high and over 300 miles wide at its base. By comparison, Earth's largest volcano, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, is just over 5 miles high and about 12 miles wide.
APOD: July 16, 1995 - The Exploration of Mars
Explanation: Thirty years ago NASA's exploration of Mars began. In July of 1965 the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew within 6,000 miles of Mars and returned 21 pictures of the mysterious red planet. NASA's continued exploration of Mars has produced detailed views of the red tinged Martian surface like the one shown above which is a composite of 102 images from the Viking missions to Mars . The composite was constructed by the US Geological Survey.